“One of the things I’d say to anybody, patient or family, is Don’t Google Breast Cancer. There are a lot of trolls out there. And there’s a lot of sensationalism and people looking for clicks. Or it’s just out of date and not accurate. If you’ve a question, ask your nurse, ask your doctor, ask your consultant, ask your oncologist, ask your surgeon. Don’t be afraid to ask them the questions. Not Dr Google.”
Caitríona Plunkett found a strange lump on her breast just before the day of her daughter’s Holy Communion. She went to her GP and was later diagnosed with breast cancer just after her birthday. She had the same initial reaction as anyone else. She immediately feared the worst.
Normally a very practical and evidence-focused person, Caitríona was even more upset at what she found online. There were a lot of bad stories and even worse photos. Thankfully, she had the sense to immediately go with the inevitable questions and worries to her nurse in the Mater, Sinead Murtagh, and her oncologist at the time, Dr Cathy Kelly. They reassured her that the impact of breast cancer on an individual life can’t be discussed in a meaningful way without reference to the individual’s pathology results, to their particular circumstances. And that cancer is a generic term throwing up results on Google that don’t reflect the outcome for a lot of people diagnosed with it.
“There are so many different types of cancers. There are so many different treatments. There are so many different stages and grades. And it’s important to note that not every cancer story is going to be a bad story. One of the things I’d say to anybody, patient or family, is Don’t Google Breast Cancer. There are a lot of trolls out there. And there’s a lot of sensationalism and people looking for clicks.”
Caitríona’s whole view of cancer changed as a result of her diagnosis and treatment. She’s now completely convinced of the importance of breast cancer research having had successful breast reconstructive surgery with Professor Malcolm Kell. She also now believes that there is no capital C to cancer and that there’s no right or wrong way to go through it as a patient.
“I have had a very positive experience and a very positive outcome. There were really bad days. But I also had the craic with the nurses in the day oncology ward. My experience wasn’t typical of how TV portrays cancer. I managed to finish a Masters in Organizational Business Psychology despite the illness. And I didn’t get a break from being a Mum either. But that probably helped me through it.
I remember this incredibly funny and pivotal moment with my youngest, Gavin, who was 6 at the time. The nurse had given us a comic book for kids to explain about breast cancer. It was fantastic, I actually learned a lot from it. But there was one part in it, at the end, where the Mum in the comic book had been treated. The cancer cells had been eradicated. Everyone in the comic book, all the doctors and the medical team, were going back to Head Quarters for a final general meeting. And Gavin looked at me funny at that part. And he said, No that’s wrong. It’s not Head Quarters. They shouldn’t be going back to Head Quarters. It should be Boob Quarters. And I don’t know why but that was the funniest thing.
It had been such a long day before that moment but it just made me realise that they were going to be alright and I was going to be alright. And we would get on with our lives.
You know, cancer’s always portrayed as this tragic thing. People always whisper the word and tilt their head when they look at you once they find out you have it. And maybe once I saw it like that too.
But now I understand that you go through it your own way with your own way of coping. I had a pretty dark sense of humour about it at times. But that’s fine. Your cancer, your rules. If somebody wants to go through cancer doing somersaults, I’ll think that’s ok.”
Caitríona decided her way of going through cancer would be to hold on to a sense of normality. She decided not to let cancer disturb her plans or routine. She only told 6 people about her diagnosis and treatment. Even through the gruelling chemotherapy and the surgery, she kept it quiet. At the start, when initially diagnosed, she had briefly considered dropping out of her Masters programme. But instead, with the support of her husband, she completed it and graduated just last year.
Caitríona only went public about her cancer after she completed her chemotherapy, had her surgery and got the all clear. She then started raising awareness about breast cancer and the importance of surgical oncology. She was an eligible candidate for nipple sparing breast reconstruction under the care of Prof. Malcolm Kell.
“Surgery is not just about removing cancer cells. It’s also about giving you back a sense of normality. For me, it allows me to look in the mirror and see Caitríona and not Caitríona who lost a breast to breast cancer. Another important element of recovery”.
Caitríona started raising awareness about breast cancer and raising funds for surgical oncology during the 2017 VHI Women’s Mini Marathon in Dublin.
“I was diagnosed with Stage I, Grade III, triple negative breast cancer. I was lucky because I detected the lump myself at an early stage and I contribute this action to the ads on the radio and TV and billboards that promote women’s health, checking your breasts and knowing what is normal for your own body. It’s so important that we all get to know what feels right for us individually. If you are not happy with something, go and get it checked out. Trust your instincts. It may just save your life.
So I decided to join people raising awareness about the importance of that and people raising funds for surgical oncology in the VHI Women’s Mini Marathon.
I walked 10km in the lashing rain with a friend Diane. We were drowned rats but we didn’t care. We did 10km of chats. And that was the first most people heard about my breast cancer. Thankfully, they gave quite generously and we raised €2,700 in funding for Professor Malcolm Kell.”
Caitríona is determined to keep fundraising for surgical oncology and to support awareness raising initiatives like the Women’s Mini Marathon again in 2018. As a person who has gone through breast cancer she feels well positioned to be an advocate for raising awareness for early detection and for better treatment during and after diagnosis including positive wellbeing and for breast cancer research.
While Caitríona is now happy to share her experience openly, she admits she kept it quiet while going through treatment so as to avoid the typical reactions you might expect from people that hear you have cancer. She simply wanted to just have the focus and energy to get through it all.
“People mean well. I mean, look at the support I got for the Women’s Mini Marathon. People mean really well. But I didn’t want the shock of coming out as someone with breast cancer. I just wanted to get on with things. Don’t get me wrong, there would be days especially after chemo where I’d sit in my pyjamas and watch rubbish on tele and that was nice too. But I didn’t wallow in it. I wanted to avoid the sympathy and shocked glances from people and having to explain that I had cancer and constantly reassure people over and over again. That energy was instead reserved for fighting cancer. The small support network I told about my cancer kept it normal for me. They were there to step in and help when needed but also knew when to just give me space to just be me: Caitríona, a Mam, a wife, a friend.
Of course, some people would prefer to tell lots of people and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either.
I think the most important thing to know about cancer is that it’s individual. That can mean understanding that the stuff on the internet mightn’t apply to you because what applies to you is particular to your pathology results. And that can also mean understanding that how you deal with this illness is down to you. In the midst of the chemo and the bloods and everything else happening, you get to keep that tiny bit of control.”
Caitríona has since spoken to the Irish Independent about the ordeal of telling your children you have cancer. You can read that article in full by clicking on this link. She found that being open and honest about having breast cancer worked and that her children understood it.
“Kids are just too smart. They just know when something’s not right. So I had to tell them. But like I said, the moment I actually told them using the comic book turned out to be one of the best moments of my whole breast cancer journey. It was a turning point for me. And it wasn’t just helpful comic books. They came in to see what it looked like, me getting chemo.
Of course then playtime at home became all about being in hospital. They would dress up and everything.
They went through the whole journey with me. We learned a lot together. We grew a lot closer as a family. And I think that my daughter will remember it too and always be careful about her own health. I was always quick to go to the GP and my nurse with any questions — when Professor Carney, my current oncologist, said I shouldn’t hesitate to contact him, I told him ‘I have you on speed dial’! I hope that this way of thinking and not being afraid to speak up about health concerns has a positive influence on my daughter later on in life. I hope she’ll be as quick to go to the doctor if she notices something strange.
My son now, Gavin, wants to be a comedian and a nurse. So I know the whole experience also had a good influence on him!”