As the most common form of cancer in the UK, it’s hard not to know about breast cancer. In 2011, around 32 women died from breast cancer every day.
Statistics like that are hard to get away from, but the positive story that Attracta Bradley tells is the story that can sometimes be forgotten amidst the facts and figures.
Diagnosed in 1997 with an aggressive and invasive stage three tumour, Attracta was told she had a 50/50 chance of survival.
“Imagine,” she says, “just a one in two chance of being here five years later. That was 17 years ago, and I’m still here.”
Incredibly, Attracta had previously had two benign tumours removed from her breasts, one in the her 20’s, the other in her 30’s.
Yet when the cancerous tumour was detected in her late 40’s it wasn’t in the shape of a lump.
“I had breast pain on and off for nine months. Excruciating pain. My doctor had wanted me to get it checked out but I was convinced it was nothing. It was only a chance meeting with a colleague, to whom I mentioned the pain, that urged me to finally seek an explanation.”
A trip to the breast screening clinic followed, where Attracta went alone. A painful mammogram was completed as well as a needle biopsy.
Working as a nurse in A&E at the time she walked over to casualty to await the results.
“When I got back to the clinic I was surprised to find my colleague and friend Eireen Rainey was in the room with my consultant.
“ It soon became clear why. They had realised I was there alone and she had been called over to be with me when he broke the news.”
The news was a tumour snaking down her left breast, with a tail-like image evident in the scan pictures. The consultant immediately recommended a full mastectomy followed by chemotherapy.
But Attracta was adamant she did not want to lose all of her breast.
“It seems silly looking back but I was determined that they wouldn’t give me a full mastectomy. If someone asked me now I would say ‘listen to your surgeon’ but I was not for changing my mind.
“I also remember being very calm and collected. When the consultant was giving me dates to organise the surgery I kept saying ‘I’m too busy that day’. Eireen finally had to take my diary off me, look me in the eye and say ‘You’ve got breast cancer, you need to get it removed, put your diary away.’”
Attracta then met her husband Martin, who was teaching at Thornhill, back at home and delivered the news. Yet it was telling her mother that she remembers most vividly.
“I had been at the clinic on the Thursday and I went to tell my mother on the Saturday. I remember it well because it was the day Princess Diana died. Everyone was crying but I told her I was going to be fine, and that everyone was crying because of Diana. She seemed fine with that explanation.”
The surgery was completed and chemotherapy was next. Wanting to control the situation Attracta had a hairdresser friend come to the house and cut her hair up short. “I wanted to decide how it happened, not the cancer. But in the end I did lose the rest.
“The chemotherapy was also very hard on me. I came home after the first session and the nausea was unbearable. I was covered in cold sores and mouth ulcers. But back then it was ‘one size fits all’ for treatment. I think nowadays, it would be more tailor made.
“But the chemo sessions after that were managed better. I had IV fluids and an anti-nausea drug the day before to try and counteract my extreme reactions.”
Yet despite the measures put in place Attracta still found herself in both the Foyle Hospice and Belvoir Park hospital for respite following her fourth and fifth sessions.
“Seeing me at the Hospice was the hardest for my parents.
“I was one of the first to actually go there for respite and it helped immeasurably. My friend Nuala Shiels was also beside me for all of my chemo sessions, she was brilliant. “
Throughout it all Attracta remained positive.
“I made the decision to live for me and to take each day as it came. I also knew that things had moved on as far as research was concerned. Eighty years ago my grandmother passed away the day she gave birth to my aunt.
“It was her sixth child, and she had one day with her before breast cancer left her husband with no wife and her children with no mother.
“I kept taking hope from the fact that things had got better. I’m very aware that I’m still here today because of the advances in research.”
Attracta also called on her complimentary therapies to keep her strength up.
“I swear by Bach remedies, they got me through everything.
“I tried to pray, and I took great strength from the fact others were praying for me, but I found it very hard to pray for myself.”
A year later and Attracta was back at work.
“I was very weak for a long time, but just after the Omagh bomb I was back in A&E alongside my colleagues. Every pain and ache after that scared me and I was straight to my doctor to get it checked out, but I’ve been very lucky.”
First published on 05 June 2014