Throughout the Covid pandemic, Donabate local Olivia Nolan had developed a great love for sea swimming. One day while Olivia was out on the water she noticed that her nipple had become inverted, that evening she decided to self-examine and discovered a lump in her right breast.
“I remember it so well because it was July 2021, I was only a few weeks away from getting married to my partner of twenty-three years. I decided to park it all in my mind for a few weeks until the wedding was over.
After I got married my husband and I were away and I told him about my concerns so we made an appointment with my GP. Straight away I was referred on for a triple assessment - a physical examination, mammogram and biopsy. I was then called back to the hospital a week later with my husband.”
Olivia recalls learning about her breast cancer diagnosis “I was absolutely heartbroken. When going for those tests, you know it is a possibility, but you don’t think it is going to happen to you.” She says.
Olivia’s medical team put a plan in place for her to undergo chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy and reconstruction and then finally radiation therapy.
“I was frightened when I heard the word chemotherapy. The only experience I had of chemo was with my brother-in-law about twenty years ago. He had been diagnosed with leukemia and he was incredibly ill from the treatment. I expected I was also heading for a similar experience.
I began AC-T chemotherapy and I was incredibly unwell but I ended up being prescribed extra anti-nausea drugs and steroids. After that I found it quite manageable other than the fatigue. The Taxol chemotherapy left me with a bit more energy and I was able to go out and walk the dogs, horse ride and sea swim. You can’t do it all but you choose wisely how you spend your good days.” She notes.
"A few weeks before my surgery, my husband Francis suggested getting a nice photo taken of myself before my mastectomy. Initially I laughed it off, but then I thought more about it, and decided that maybe it was a good idea. A friend of ours, Roslyn Byrne, is a photographer, and myself and my husband decided that we would reach out to her. She was happy to oblige, and we agreed on a date in the following week for a 'Boobie Shoot'!
"The sun was shining on the morning of the shoot, and my husband went away for the day, to leave myself and Roslyn alone.
Roslyn arrived with all her gear and some props for the shoot. She had put lots of thought into the shoot & had some great ideas for photos.
"I had lost my hair and wore a wig for some of the shots but went bare headed for most of them. I had so much fun doing it, Roslyn is so easy going and made me feel very comfortable. When Roslyn sent me the first few photos, which were her favourites, I was blown away at how nice they were. To me they show my strength and beauty. The photos with no wig are actually my favourite."
Olivia thought long and hard about whether or not she would opt for a DIEP reconstruction “I almost found it more challenging that I was the only one who could make this decision, I found an Irish Cancer Society booklet on it which I found incredibly useful. I am an avid horse rider and I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength in my abdomen to keep this up post DIEP reconstruction.”
Olivia decided to sit down with her surgeon and have an open and honest conversation with him about her worries “He mentioned that he could try to cut through only one side versus the two sides. This would mean there would be a limited amount of tissue for the reconstruction and may not be enough at all.
"I am excited to be a part of something that might benefit and help others in the future.”
I gave him permission cut through the second side if this was the case but thankfully it all worked out and it wasn’t necessary. When I woke up I immediately knew I had made the right decision for me, the recovery was tough but I felt and looked like myself.”
Post-surgery however Olivia’s medical team found that out of the twenty-three lymph nodes they had removed, there was still cancer present in eleven “My tumour had shrunk considerably but they decided to book me in for six more months of chemotherapy after the radiation therapy to avoid the cancer reoccurring.”
Olivia explains that she is also taking part in the SASCIA clinical trial through Cancer Trials Ireland, a body supported by the Irish Cancer Society. “When my consultant analyzed my tumour they found that it possessed a lot of the specifications needed to take part in the trial.”
I began my involvement at the end of August. I am excited to be a part of something that might benefit and help others in the future.”
On reflecting on her cancer experience, Olivia says she feels it is important to have a plan for each upcoming week and to keep your contacts “During my treatment it was winter and Covid was rampant, but I would still meet with my friends outdoors for a coffee in my local garden centre. I developed neuropathy in my fingers and toes so I couldn’t sea swim but I still went and sat with my friends after they did their swim.
It is easy to sit back and let yourself dwell on everything and to feel sorry for yourself. I didn’t sit around waiting for my friends to organise something, I think often they were afraid I would be feeling too sick to meet them. Ultimately I think keeping that social element of my life, which didn’t revolve around cancer, made me stronger.”
Olivia 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