In May 2020, diplomat Sarah McGrath was recovering from surgery for a badly broken ankle. Normally resident in Dublin 8, she was recuperating at home in Clarecastle, Co Clare when she found a lump in her breast.
Sarah made an appointment straight away to see her GP and she was referred for triple assessment. She subsequently received a diagnosis of stage 2 hormone positive breast cancer.
“When you look back in hindsight, you wonder if there anything you didn’t notice, but to be honest, I had no other symptoms,” says Sarah, who is now The Ambassador of Ireland to Singapore. “I had no night sweats or tiredness, or any tiredness I had was because I’d just had major surgery on my ankle.”
Her diagnosis came as a great shock. “I wouldn’t say I was the best in the world for self-check – I’m a lot better at that now for obvious reasons – but I’d never had a breast lump before. Years ago, I’d had some lumps that turned out to be nothing, just swollen lymph nodes. I went to have the lump in my breast checked because it was the right thing to do but I was quite sure it wasn’t anything,” she says. “When I had my triple assessment, at the end of it, the consultant spoke to me. She said, ‘we won’t know for sure until the biopsy sample comes back but from the imaging, it is quite likely that it is something, and I just want to let you know that’. She was very reassuring and she said, ‘and if it is something, we’ll take care of it because that is what we do here’. I was very grateful for that because 10 days later when I went in to get my results, although it was still a big shock to hear the words, I felt that at least I was a small bit prepared for it.”
Her treatment plan included two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Because the pandemic was ongoing, she attended her appointments by herself. “In some ways, I can see how it would be nice to have someone to chat with when you’re doing your chemos,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s not exactly a day out so in some ways it was easier to be there with my phone and my book and treat this like it was a flight or something like that. People are so kind and so good and it’s very hard on the people who love you. Sometimes you’re just better able to handle it if it’s just you, you do your treatment on your own and then go home. In some ways I wasn’t sorry that people couldn’t come with me, I think it could be very upsetting for them but then again, I’m quite a self-contained person so I could also appreciate for other people that would have been a very lonesome experience.”
Having finished her active treatment, she will continue to take Tamoxifen for five more years and Zolodex for two years. Sarah is also taking part in an Irish Cancer Society-funded clinical trial, which is ongoing and is focused on studying non-recurrence. “I don’t know if it’s said enough, when people are considering taking part in a clinical trial, but one of the positive things for me is the additional checks and monitoring that happen when you’re part of a trial, which I found very reassuring,” she says. “In my case, I was finished active treatment and I was in that kind of weird scenario where you go from talking to a medical professional almost every day to, well I’ll see you in six months. I found being on the trial and being seen every three months to be a gentler step down.”
During her illness, Sarah used the Irish Cancer Society website to find information, and she also read some of the Society’s information booklets. When she has reached the stage where she is two years post-treatment, she hopes to volunteer for Peer Support, the Irish Cancer Society’s one-to-one support programme where volunteers who have had a cancer diagnosis in the past provide practical and emotional support to newly diagnosed patients. Her friend and colleague Michelle Winthrop was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 and Sarah found her advice and support invaluable as she went through her own treatment.
By following the Irish Cancer Society and other organisations on social media, she became connected to another woman who was also having breast cancer treatment in Limerick. They’re still in regular contact although they’ve never met in person. “I think that engaging with someone who on the most fundamental level knows what it’s like is important,” she says. “There are so many intensely practical things that you don’t know like you’ll need to put a pillow under your seatbelt when you come home after surgery. Of course, the breast cancer nurses probably tell you that but they might tell you the week before, and they’re probably telling you a million other things and you’re not in the zone. Advice that someone gave me that I’ve also passed on is to get little caps for when your hair starts to fall out, so you’re not having to pick it off the pillow. You can take off your cap, throw it in the washing machine and you don’t need to think about it.”
She also notes how seeing other people go through treatment was something of a revelation. “When you’re in the breast cancer service system, it’s quite wrapped around. You start in the breast clinic and that’s where you go back to when you’re all done. When you move into the chemotherapy phase, you’re suddenly seeing lots of people with other types of cancer. I found that overwhelming, not that it was upsetting to me particularly but it really made me aware of how common this is, how many people are going through it and how many of us turn out fine.”
For Sarah, her colleague Michelle and Karen – the friend she has made on Twitter – it was important when they were sick to hear stories about people who had finished their treatments and were getting on with their lives. “That’s not to block out the seriousness or the dangers of reoccurrence or the fact that’s not everyone’s experience. But I think sometimes, it may be human nature to hear a lot more about what doesn’t work out well whereas actually for a lot of people, they do survive and they do thrive and that’s a really important thing for people to know when they’re in the middle of it,” says Sarah.
Her advice to both men and women is to check themselves. “If you’re not great at doing it or you don’t know how to do it, when you’re at the GP or the gynae, ask them to check and show you how to do it,” she says.
Her other piece of advice is if there’s something, don’t wait to get it checked out. “From my own experience, I am extremely grateful that as soon as there was something, I went to the doctor straight away. I would say to people, don’t be afraid of what you might find out. It might be nothing and if it is something, in the words of my wonderful surgeon, they’ll handle it because it’s what they do.”
Sarah is delighted to be supporting the Irish Cancer Society's Care For Your Pair campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To learn more about the campaign, visit: cancer.ie/careforyourpair #CareForYourPair
Host a Big Pink Breakfast
Host a Big Pink Breakfast this October to support breast cancer patients and their families across Ireland.
Find out more at: Cancer.ie/CareForYourPair