In 2010, 24-year-old Ann-Marie Durcan from County Mayo discovered a lump in her right breast. “I was always aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and how important it is to get yourself checked out if anything unusual was to come about. I had lost my mother and my aunt to breast cancer, so when I went to see my GP, they referred me on to the Breast Clinic due to my family history.”

At the clinic they examined Ann-Marie, but said it was a benign fibroadenoma and nothing to worry about. They told Ann-Marie to keep an eye on the lump, and come back if needed.

Not long after this, Ann-Marie became pregnant. As her pregnancy progressed, the lump became bigger and more painful. Ann-Marie’s GP referred her to the Breast Clinic again. During this time, Ann-Marie discovered another lump, but in her left breast. Both lumps were biopsied and sent away for testing.

“I was then called back to the clinic and diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. I received the news on a Friday, at the time I was four days past my expected delivery date. They told me I would need to be scheduled for a C-section on Monday, but thankfully I delivered naturally on the Sunday.

“Three days after the birth I had to go for a scan to see if the cancer had spread. Thankfully, it remained confined to the breast. Ten days after the birth I started my chemotherapy. Even though I had a family history of breast cancer, at that age I just didn’t think it would happen to me,” Ann-Marie recalls.

Ann-Marie was then scheduled in for a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and 28 sessions of radiation therapy, finishing up treatment in September 2011.

After her treatment finished, Ann-Marie was advised to go for genetic testing, her results came back to show she was BCRA1 positive. “At that point, I wasn’t surprised. It was recommended I undergo regular blood tests and pelvic ultrasounds. Overall I was in good health again. I went back to college and trained as a mental health nurse. I became pregnant again with my son, and everything went smoothly. Once my son was born I was due to undergo the removal of my fallopian tubes to reduce my risk of developing ovarian cancer, but unfortunately this surgery was booked in for 2020. With the pandemic, all non-urgent surgery was postponed.”

Ann-Marie’s surgery was moved to June 2021. “In December 2020 my scans were clear but not long after I started to notice weight gain in my stomach, a few episodes of what I thought was a UTI and fatigue.”

June 2021 eventually came around, and when Ann-Marie came out of the operating theatre, her consultant called in to see her. “She told me she found cysts on my ovaries and was concerned. She also noticed fluid around my womb. She biopsied everything and sent it away for testing. I just knew deep down it was cancer again. Two weeks later I got the news over the phone while I was at home with my children: I had advanced ovarian cancer.

“I remember taking the phone call in the bathroom so my children wouldn’t hear and going on autopilot, even attempting to comfort my gynaecologist who kept apologising for being the bearer of bad news. My first thoughts were ‘how could I tell my family and friends the bad news for a second time?’ I felt so guilty, having to put them all through this again. One positive was that I knew what chemo was like, and I knew the routine of scans, appointments, etc.”

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My first thoughts were, ‘how could I tell my family and friends the bad news for a second time?’

I felt so guilty, having to put them all through this again.

Ann-Marie began chemotherapy, followed by a radical hysterectomy and more chemotherapy. She is currently on maintenance therapy of a parp inhibitor and monthly bloods to monitor her.

“This treatment was not available ten years ago – so I feel so lucky to have this available to me. The surgery did drop me straight into menopause at 35, which is another shock to my body, and brings its own issues. When the treatment finished, I think that’s when it hit me.

“When you’re going through cancer your body literally goes into survival mode and you just focus on getting through each chemo session, each appointment, each day. I kind of shut down emotionally, as thinking of the future is too difficult when you don’t know if you’re going to be here in six months. I don’t think I processed the trauma of it all, as I was so focused on my kids – and we were building a house too.”

“When people ask to help, don’t be afraid to accept that help and support. Let them know specifically how they can help, whether its dropping in meals, tidying the house, taking the kids out to give you a break. Also be aware that, sometimes, it’s when you finish treatment that can be the toughest time, emotionally.

You can feel very lost, as this thing which has totally consumed your whole life for the last year has just – gone. You’re left trying to juggle all the feelings that come up. Gratefulness, relief, happiness, survivor’s guilt, sadness, loneliness, fear of reoccurrence, and just sheer physical exhaustion.”

This is the time to make sure to reach out to those supports that are available, such as counselling and support groups. I’m currently availing of phone counselling with the Irish Cancer Society, which is a tremendous support to me.”


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