OUR FRIEND HAS BREAST CANCER.
10 MIN READ
"EVEN THOUGH I'M GOING THROUGH CHEMO NOW,
I STILL DON'T BELIEVE IT."
Niamh Carroll lives in Ireland with her fiancé Mike, and their 10-month old baby girl, Éabha. Three months after she had her daughter she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month we asked Niamh to share her story so we could understand more about what she's faced, and how we can help support friends and family who might be going through a similar experience.
Here, she generously speaks openly about it all – her darkest moments, the utter denial she experienced, and the ways she's taking back control.
Her number one piece of advice: Don't ignore anything.
You wake up every morning and it's the first thing you think of. You wish it was just a nightmare. I hadn't heard of, or known, anyone our age getting breast cancer. "I'm 32, healthy and I had just had a baby!" No-one gets a free pass with cancer.
I remember the night I found the lump. I had a blocked duct from breastfeeding, so I was pumping at the time and massaging the duct when I felt something like a petit pois. I realise I sound like a right tool saying that hahaha, but that's what it was like – not a pea, a petit pois!
Anyway, the blocked duct was towards the bottom of my breast and this was just above it. It wasn't sore to touch so I convinced myself it was just another blocked duct. You know how it is; your boobs are all over the place at that time.
At Éabha's six-week check-up I was so blasé about it and said to the doctor, "you get lots of lumps and bumps while breastfeeding, don't you?" She responding with "yeah, ya, of course", so I didn't think anything of it. But it didn't go away.
Six weeks later I was back at the doctors with Éabha and while I was there I asked her to check it out for me. She referred me to a specialist, reassuring me that it was probably nothing but worth checking out. She told me to keep massaging it and if it went away not to forget to cancel the appointment.
It took me another three weeks to make the appointment. Denial. Finally, I went and had an ultrasound but I couldn't have a mammogram because I was still breastfeeding and full of milk. They did a biopsy there and then, which is where you get a local anaesthetic and they take a small sample with a needle. It's all very easy and takes about five mins.
I wasn't worried at all. But Mum was, so she came with me to the next appointment. I remember getting annoyed at her for being so worried. When we went into the waiting room that day Mum was chatting away to everyone who'd all been waiting for about an hour or two. I was called in within 10 mins ...
We met the doctor who started with, "we thought ...", and when he said "thought" I was like, "wait, huh?" He said "we thought the lump would be related to feeding and the milk. It's not. It's cancer."
Shock. No tears or anything. Just shock.
It's cliched to say, but it was almost like having an out-of-body experience. You can't absorb that information.
In the next breath he told me I needed to think about freezing my eggs (chemo can bring on early menopause) and I was going to do six months of chemotherapy followed by radiation. He had surgery booked for me for five days later, and I had to stop breastfeeding immediately. I couldn't even feed Éabha that night.
Shock. The tears came later.
Mum brought me home but Mike and Éabha were still out for a walk.
I will never forget hearing his key turn in the door. He was like me, and never thought in a million years this lump would be anything. It was so tough telling him. I knew it was happening to me, but his whole world would be turned upside down. Him coming home, and Éabha seeing us both upset, and me not being able to feed her, it was all so hard. But, do you know what? I was balling my eyes out putting formula in a bottle thinking she won't take it, but she lapped it up! She moved to the bottle no problem and never looked to the boob again for comfort. She was brilliant, she didn't give a shit! It was great.
I had the surgery but the next worry was that it might have spread to my lymph nodes. You're hoping it's just in the breast. But I got more bad news – it had spread to two lymph nodes. I was devastated but the doctors reassured me – it could have been worse.
The few weeks after surgery, waiting for chemo to start, having to get more scans, and while going through the egg retrieval process, were the lowest I've ever been. I had to do this just three months after having my own baby. Having the option to freeze my eggs was brilliant and everything was organised for me, but the process was still really, really hard.
I was like a zombie, completely numb. Balling my eyes out one minute with my mind wandering to the darkest places the next. I tried to remind myself that if I had to pick a cancer to have, this the best one. I looked at all these women who had been through it and were flying now, but I just couldn't help my mind going down the rabbit hole: "I need to be alive. I need to see my daughter grow up. I need to be her mum".
I'd get so upset when I'd see her and think who will comfort her if I'm not here? It was all to do with her. It's like you're in the eye of the storm.
Getting messages of support and knowing everyone is behind you was, and still is, so great. Don't be afraid to send someone you know going through this a message just saying 'thinking of you'.
I found out that my cancer is triple-negative which is less common than the hormone positive cancers. They tell you not to Google anything, but I Googled 'triple negative'. That was the worst day – I literally could not stop crying for hours. I don't Google anymore.
Once I started chemo I felt like I was doing everything in my power to treat it and I'm doing way better than I thought I would. I thought I'd be this really sick mum, in bed all day with no energy and the first four were tough, and I was really tired with two or three days a week where I'd need Mum to come help with Éabha, but after those four it got easier and now I have only one day, every two weeks, where I need help.
Within the first few weeks you lose your hair, your eyelashes, your eyebrows, everything. My hair was half way down my back! The thought of losing it and what I'd look like and the anxiety around it was so much worse than actually losing it.
It literally falls out in clumps, so deciding when to bite the bullet and whether to do it yourself before it falls out is all quite upsetting. I made loads of plans and changed my mind on them all. In the end I went over to my two closest friends' place.
I brought an electric razor and a bottle of champagne. We did it in stages. They tried to cut it straight and into different styles but at one point it was literally diagonal! They were so kind and supportive and we ended up having such a laugh. There were no tears shed that night, ironically. And it turns out a bob suits me!
We cut it really short so I still had hair on my head, Sinead O'Connor-style, basically. It gave me time to see what I'll look like when it grows back after too, so that was reassuring. People said to me, "you can totally rock short", which gave me such confidence. I think that's important for others to know – it's OK to comment on it and to acknowledge it. It's the same with the wig and when people tell you it looks like your real hair, it really does help.
When I go home at night and take off my makeup and wig, cancer is there staring me right in the face. To be honest, it's probably harder for Mike because I can just not look in the mirror, but he has to see it all the time. He's amazing, though.
Going through something like this has made me realise just how much, like-oh-my-god-how-much, I love him and how much I need him by my side. I'm so lucky. I'll never forget when Éabha was still sleeping in our room and I looked to my left and she was there, and Mike was to my right and I was sandwiched between the two of them, our little family unit. I felt so safe and like we were a team.
I love when people ask me how treatment is going but then we go back to talking about normal catch-up stuff and having a laugh. Despite all the craziness going on, I want normal conversations, you know?
Initially, I kind of thought, OK my life is on pause for a year. I got really worried that my career would be on hold for a year while dealing with this and it was going to be wasted time, but it doesn't feel like that at all. I'm at home with my baby. I get to spend all this time with her.
About half way through my chemo Mum asked would I consider speaking to someone about it all. I said, "I'm fine, I don't need to talk to anyone, maybe at the end of the treatment when I'm worrying about it coming back, I will". But she persisted, so I did.
I met with someone and they've been great, especially when I have those panic moments and can't stop thinking about what might happen. To anyone who is going through this, I would 100 percent recommend it. You can't control physically what's happening but you can control your mind and your attitude and how you face it.
I have four more weekly chemo sessions to go, which makes twenty in total. After the chemo they have to see how I've responded to the treatment and then it's into radiotherapy. That can be anywhere from one or two months.
I wouldn't have found the lump without Éabha. She's like my little guardian angel. It wasn't anything you could see and I was in denial the whole time, but I just didn't know enough about it all.
Everyone needs to know that you can get it at any age, even if you've just had a baby. No-one gets a free pass.
So, please check more regularly, and like, dig around there. You'll have a much better chance of overcoming cancer if you find it early.
Follow Niamh on insta.
For more info and to make a donation in Ireland.
In Australia, over 15,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Among them, 15 percent will have triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). Donate to Cancer Council
Interviewed by Dee Behan
Image via Gravel and Gold. They sell these boob shower curtains.
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