Bridie McIntyre was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Bridie described her battle with the disease as the darkest period of her life but said that joining local breast cancer support group, the Pink Ladies, made her feel like a “normal human being again”.
Bridie, now 60, was born in a small cottage in Ballyowen on the Ardlough Road near Drumahoe. Her father, Charles Mullan, was a farm labourer, and her mother Sarah (nee McKinney) reared 14 children, including Bridie.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood,” said Bridie smiling.
“We lived in the most lovely of cottages and never wanted after anything. We were and still are a very close family. There were 10 boys and four girls so my mother certainly had her hands full.”
Bridie’s father fell out with the farmer for whom he worked and as a result the Mullans had to move out of the cottage and find a new home.
“We moved to Strathfoyle and it was great. It was a wonderful place to grow up.
“I remember that my brothers and I would stop off on the way home from school and steal a few potatoes from a nearby field. We’d wrap them up in newspaper and sit them on the fire and when they were cooked, we’d eat them - they were really tasty!”
Bridie went to Enagh Primary School beside Enagh Lough before she attended St Brecan’s High School.
“I really enjoyed my time at school. I liked mathematics and sport - I had a real passion for netball.
“I had a great teacher called Miss McGinty - not only was she a great teacher, she was also a great person.”
Bridie left school when she was 15 years-old and went to work in the Ebrington shirt factory. Bridie said that the friendships she developed during her time working as a shirt factory girl were like no others. She had to wait for almost 40 years before she experienced such warmth again - when she joined the Pink Ladies in 2005.
“My two aunts were spinsters and they managed to get me a start in the shirt factory.
“God, when I think about it now, it makes me smile. The craic we used to have working in the shirt factories was like no other.”
When Bridie was 16 years-old she started up a relationship with a young boy from the Ebrington shirt factory who was a Protestant. But soon afterwards both Bridie and the young boy received bullets in the post from a group claiming to be a paramilitary organisation.
“The bullets came in the post and the message told us that because I was a Catholic and he was a Protestant, we had to stop seeing one another. I remember the night we said goodbye to one another. I still see him the odd time around the time but that was then and this is now,” she smiled.
After three years working for the Ebrington shirt factory, Bridie got a job a making pyjamas at Kelly’s shirt making factory in Abercorn Road.
“They were great times. The women I worked with there were amazing and I had many a laugh working there.”
Bridie met her husband, Mickey McIntyre, a year later at a dance in Dungiven. The happy couple have been married for 42 years and have five children together.
“I met Mickey at a dance in Dungiven. I used to go there with my friends and he went there with his. We knew one another for a while before we started going out with one another.
“Mickey then asked me out and the rest is history, as they say. We got married in St. Columba’s Church on Chapel Road and we were the first couple to have our wedding reception in the Drummond Hotel in Ballykelly,” she smiled.
“Our wedding day was such a happy day and myself and Mickey have been together ever since. Mickey is from the Bogside and we got our first house in St. Columb’s Wells in heart of the Bogside.”
Soon after they were married, Bridie became pregnant with the couple’s first child but the birth was to be far from routine.
Bride was six months into her pregnancy and she was on her way to bingo from her home in the Bogside to the city centre when she was caught in the middle of a large explosion.
“It was the early 1970s when it happened. I was on my way to bingo when a bomb went off in the city centre. I eventually made it to bingo but soon after my waters broke and Michael was born three months premature.
“Michael weighed only four pounds when he was born and had to spend a lot of time in hospital.”
Bridie, who gave up her job as a shirt factory girl to rear her family, went on to have four other children; Christopher, George, Trudie and Nicole.
With a premature baby to look after and the difficulties of the Troubles ongoing, Bridie managed to get a house in Carnhill in 1972 but times were tough and in order to get the money needed to pay for her keys she sought the help of the local St. Vincent de Paul branch.
“I wanted to bring my children up in a place where they were not in the middle of things like Operation Motorman and riots. I didn’t want any of them getting involved and thankfully none of them did.
“The army used to shoot from the Walls behind our house and whoever it was on the other side used to shoot back. Our wee house in the Wells was right in the middle so I said to Mickey that we had to get some place else to live.
“I though that the best way to do this was to get a house outside of the Bogside so I managed to get a house in Carnhill.
“The house in the Wells was an old house and it was covered in beetles. I put some of the dead beetles into an envelope and went to the Housing Executive and asked them how they would like to rear their children in a house full of insects - soon after we got our new house.
“We moved into number 559 but when it came for the time to move, my mum was away and I didn’t have the money to pay for my keys so I had to get it from the St. Vincent de Paul.
“My sister and myself filled an old pram and moved all of the stuff I had from St. Columb’s Wells all the way to Carnhill. We walked all the way but that was the type of thing you had to do back then.
“We lived in Carnhill for 33 years and they were 33 happy year. But myself and Mickey always wanted to move back to the Bogside so when a small flat in Frederick Street became available we jumped at the chance.”
But there was another reason why Bridie wanted to move from Carnhill - she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted to keep her bad news from her friends around her.
“I didn’t want people that I knew all of my life seeing me any differently so that was another reason why we moved from Carnhill.
“I love my figure and I love getting dressed up and going out. A few years before I was diagnosed I started to notice a change in one of my breasts. I went and asked about and saw a doctor but it still took three years to diagnose it properly.
“My younger brother was getting married in the Guildhall and I said to Mickey that I didn’t want to spoil my brother’s big day so I kept the bad news to myself. But one of my older sisters said to me at the wedding that she thought I looked unwell and I told her that I had something to tell her but I would tell her after the wedding.
“So the next day I told my family I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that I was going to beat it. That was 2004 and I am still here today.
“When I got the bad news I remember thinking that I was the first person out of my mother, father, brothers and sisters to be diagnosed with cancer - I felt like the rotten apple in the barrel.
“It was very dark time and breast cancer completely changed my life. My attitude to life and people completely changed.
“I had to have chemotherapy in Belvoir Park in Belfast and as a result I lost all of my hair - that was a very dark day for me,” she said emotionally.
“I completely changed as a human being the day I noticed my hair coming out but I knew I had to do something about it.
“So, I called my friend Jacqui and told her to bring an electric razor to the hospital and I asked her to shave everything off. Jacqui was crying when she was doing it and she told me she thought I had lovely hair.
“I’ll never be myself again. The body I have now is not the body I know and I will always live in fear that the cancer could come back again.
“I got the all clear a few years ago but I owe a lot of why I am still here today to my friends, my family and the Pink Ladies. I was one of the first women at the first meeting of the Pink Ladies in 2005.
“The Pink Ladies are not all about coming together and talking about cancer. There’s plenty of fun to be had and the craic we have is like the craic I experienced when I worked in the shirt factories many years ago.
“I’d be lost without the Pink Ladies. They have done so much for me in the past and I try to repay them whenever I can. They are of great support and sometimes all it takes is the kindest of words from one of them to make me believe that everything will be ok. You couldn’t buy that kind of support. They are the group of people that understand everything and despite the best efforts of your family they will never know what you are going through unless they have actually had cancer too.
“I have to thank all of my friends and family. Mickey, and my children, Michael, George, Christopher, Trudie and Nicole were all there for me - I don’t know where I’d be without them.”
She added: “I’d tell anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer to contact the Pink Ladies because it will lift them, it will get them back to normality. It will give them the reason they need to get up out of bed in the morning and put their clothes on - joining the Pink Ladies has even convinced me to give up cigarettes! I am off them about a year.
“Going to that first ever Pink Ladies meeting in the kitchen in the Gasyard centre all those years ago was perhaps one of the best things I have ever done. It brought me back to feeling like a worthwhile person and I don’t feel like the rotten apple anymore.”