Health & Fitness Antrim mum on how shock breast cancer diagnosis left her feeling like her 'world was falling apart'

15:40  30 july  2022
15:40  30 july  2022 Source:   belfastlive.co.uk

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When Elaine Phillips noticed some unusual pain in her breast as she cuddled her children for a bedtime story, she put it down as nothing untoward, having previously been told she had fibrous tissue in her breasts, and chose to ignore the issue.

But after hearing of a BBC presenter's shock death to cancer a week later, the mum-of-two was prompted into making a GP appointment for herself, just for reassurance.

Attending the appointment alone and feeling embarrassed for 'wasting their time', Elaine wasn't prepared for the diagnosis she received just a few hours later.

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She explained: “One night in September 2018 when snuggling with my kids during a bedtime story, I’d noticed my boob feeling a bit sore. At the time I had this niggling thought in my head that it felt a bit different than any usual aches, but as I’d had a breast check a few years before and was told I had fibrous tissue in my breasts, I decided it was most likely that and chose to ignore it.

"The following week on the news I heard that Rachel Bland, a presenter of BBC’s ‘You Me and Big C’, had tragically passed away and it spurred me on to go get a check-up.

“The GP agreed it was likely to be fibrous tissue but, as with all lumps, made a referral. My partner James was away working, and as I was so sure it was nothing I went alone to the appointment. On the 11th September I entered the clinic around 7pm, feeling really embarrassed and thinking that I was wasting people’s time. Within a few hours I walked out having been told I had cancer. I was 38 and suddenly my world felt like it was falling apart. "

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“I remember saying, “No I'm too young, my kids are 4 and 7, this can't be happening”. On that evening the fear that my kids would lose their mum filled every inch of me," added Elaine.

Trying to come to terms with the news herself, emotions got too much for Elaine the next morning during the school run, but it led to a whole new support network she knew she could rely on as she faced the daunting new chapter of her life.

“The next morning, I needed to break the news to my sister and parents which was just heartbreaking. I walked the kids to school and burst into tears as I spoke to a few mums from Pippa’s class. Instantly they were there for me. They (and later others) were on my ‘Who We Can Ask for Help list' pinned to the fridge. Just knowing we had a list of people to ask for help reassured me that we could, between family and friends, keep the routine for the kids as normal as possible."

Despite having a great support network, the mum-of-two said the wait for her surgery 'nearly broke' her.

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“I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, ER positive, HER2 negative breast cancer. Unfortunately, the tumour was bigger than first thought and very close to my chest wall. So along with the oncologist, we decided that a mastectomy followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy, was my best option.

"W hat I really wanted was just for the cancer to be gone and the almost six-week wait for surgery nearly broke me. I felt very lost and alone even though I was surrounded by friends and family showing me so much love."

The Templepatrick woman said being honest with her children from the start was important to her but also wanted to make sure they life was as normal as possible for them, which they achieved with the help of friends and family.

“Alexander was that little bit older and more aware that I was sick. On the bad days, he seemed to know what to do or say encouraging me to put my coat on and walk them to school reminding me I had always told them to try even when something is hard.

“I found the idea of losing my hair really difficult, but Alexander found it really funny that I would be bald ‘just like grandad’. Pippa wanted to sit and hold my hand as I got my head shaved. When she felt the buzz of the razor and knew it wasn’t hurting me, she danced about the room pretending my hair was a unicorn tail coming from her PJ bottoms!

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Elaine with husband James and children Alexander and Pippa © BRIAN MORRISON Elaine with husband James and children Alexander and Pippa

“I had so many people do such lovely things, from looking after my kids, making us meals, bringing flowers and gifts to cheer me up, walking with me and taking me for many coffees to keep me busy. For everything everyone did, I’m truly so thankful and blessed. I was also lucky that one of the mums at the school was a year ahead of me with her diagnosis, and I was able to tap into her knowledge and experience. Just seeing how well she was doing gave me such hope."

Despite younger women among those impacted by cancer, Elaine felt services weren't there for women her age and younger, but charity Cancer Focus NI are on a mission to address that.

" I attended a local exercise group for people with cancer and again it hit me hard that I was much younger than anyone else there. It really struck me then that there was a lack of services for younger people and that's why I'm so pleased Cancer Focus NI is launching a support group for younger women.

"A group and space to share the journey, to know that you are not the only one that this is happening to. A group to help you work out the new medical language you need to know and understand, share hints and tips about hair loss or scar creams.

"A group who understands the fertility and hormonal issues that young women with breast cancer face. Or for those with kids to share their ideas of how to talk to children about cancer or share hacks of suitable games to play on your bad days. People who may have the same fears or questions as you.

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“As with many difficulties we encounter in life having others who have been or are going through the same issues makes things just that bit easier. I remember at end of treatment talking to someone and I explained how I just couldn’t settle the fear inside me, that I knew I needed to, that none of us knows what the next day brings, and that I could go out and get hit by a bus tomorrow. They replied telling me, ‘Yeah, but cancer feels like you have stepped on the road, you can see the bus coming and you’re not sure it’s going to stop in time.’"

She continued: “This was it! Everything I had been feeling. The thing is....yes I absolutely knew my partner, friends, family and medical team were there supporting me. However, as much as I would love no one else to be on the road looking at the bus, the reality is there are young women here in Northern Ireland just like me, being told they have breast cancer every day and it would have been lovely to have stood on the road together supporting and encouraging each other, to have stood alongside others who understand what it feels like to be looking directly at that bus."

“Life after treatment has been a challenge for me, as it is for many of the people I have since met. As time has passed, I have learnt to live alongside my fears and worries for the future and have started to calm. I have taken strength from joining the Lagan Dragons, a dragon boat paddling club for people affected by breast cancer.

"Just to sit as a group with other women who have been where I have and see how strong they are is inspirational. And so, for now I work hard to better my own health and fitness, in the hope that I can be as strong and well for as long as I can be.

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“I have been so lucky to receive peer support from women of a similar age in a similar situation as me, and that support has been absolutely priceless. I believe Cancer Focus NI’s new Thrive support group is a wonderful initiative and will help so many younger women with breast cancer, right from the beginning of their diagnosis. I would encourage anyone who is in this situation to find out more and see if they can benefit from the programme.”

Cancer Focus NI group facilitator, Caroline Hart said: “The purpose of our Thrive Coaching Programme is to create a safe space for these women, time to reflect on what they have been through and how they might move on in a positive way. So, if this is something you would be interested in finding out more about or if you’d like to join our Thrive Community, please do get in contact.”


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