Michelle McLaren is best known for her role as coordinator of the Pink Ladies. At 25 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, after going into remission in 2012, last year her cancer returned. She spoke to Ellen Barr this week about her journey through the illness for a second time
It’s difficult to put into words what Michelle McLaren has gone through over the past eight months.
In one sentence, the 31-year-old Derry woman has fought breast cancer - twice.
But behind that one sentence lies the reality of what life has been like for the stoic mother of two who has once again, fought cancer.
In the cafe of the Gasyard Centre on Tuesday morning, however, Michelle is her usual self and the laughter and jokes keep coming. All this cheerfulness, despite the fact that her chemotherapy ended less than two weeks ago, is one of the qualities which endears the Derry woman to everyone who meets her. She just doesn’t do giving up.
Michelle is best known for her role with Derry’s Pink Ladies, who she’s been involved with since her initial diagnosis with breast cancer in 2007, when she was 25.
Since then, she’s campaigned tirelessly for better cancer services here and has been one of the most outspoken opponents agains the ATOS medical assessment unit on the Strand Road.
Michelle was only too familiar with all the issues around cancer, and more than well equipped to advise others after going into remission in 2012. She had been through the battle herself, and won.
However, last November she got the news she’d dreaded hearing. Her cancer was back.
“I suppose in my heart, I knew for a while,” says Michelle. “I was probably trying to deny it to myself, but I knew deep down.”
An elective mastectomy in August 2013 meant that with both her breasts removed, Michelle only had around a three per cent chance of cancer returning.
“I had a two per cent chance of getting Breast Cancer in my twenties and a three per cent chance of it coming back after the mastectomy, but both things happened. I just remember thinking, I must be the unluckiest person ever,” says Michelle. Remarkably, she’s now able to laugh at the misfortune of her bad luck.
“What are the chances,” she smiles.
Looking back to her diagnosis last year, Michelle says she put initial feelings of feeling tired down to a busy time at work during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
“I was busy at work and I suppose I’d had the mastectomy in August so I thought it was after effects of that too. As well as that it was the run up to Christmas and I was busy getting ready for that so there were a lot of reasons to be tired. At the same time, though, I had found a lump under my arm. I told myself it couldn’t be anything to worry about because I’d had the mastectomy and it was less than 12 weeks after the surgery. I decided to give myself the full 12 weeks before I went to get looked at.
“I told my sister about the lump and ironically enough the next morning I got a letter in about going for a routine mammogram.”
Instead of going for the mammogram, Michelle attended a hospital appointment a few days later and spoke to a consultant who gave her the news she had dreaded.
“The cancer was back in the lymph nodes and the lump under my arm. I couldn’t believe it. I just remember thinking “How the hell has this happened, after I’ve done all this and had the mastectomy. I kept asking myself what I’d done wrong. After going into remission the first time, I’d told myself that even if I got thirty years down the line and the children were grown up and the cancer came back, I’d deal with it then but I had never expected it to come back when it did.
“It was such a shock for my family and friends. All through my first diagnosis I’d gone through the treatment without any complications and everything had gone according to plan. And then all of a sudden it was back.”
Just weeks before Christmas, Michelle took the brave decision of not telling her children Grace, (9) and Liam (8) that her cancer had returned.
“I wanted them to have a good Christmas so I made sure that very little people knew so that there was no chance they would find out and it would ruin their Christmas.”
Before Christmas, Michelle’s consultant told her that her doctors were concerned about a scan which had shown a shadow on her neck.
“They thought the Cancer might have spread. But they wouldn’t know for definite until test results came back after Christmas. I was asking what that would mean if it had spread in the way they they had thought. I just wanted to know what the plan was, what the treatment would be. And they just said that if it had gone to that part of my neck it would be inoperable and they’d be looking at palliative care.”
With no clear answers, and no treatment plan in place. Michelle went home and celebrated Christmas as best she could.
“I had all the family round, I went to my son’s school play. I did all that because I wasn’t sure if it would be my last Christmas. I remember thinking that a few times. But in the end, I just got on with it.”
After Christmas, more positive news was on the horizon and test results revealed that the shadow on her neck scan was simply enlarged lymph nodes.
“I remember saying to the consultant that I didn’t know whether to hug him or punch him,” laughs Michelle.
At that point, Michelle spoke to her children about the fact that she was ill again.
“It was hard for them to understand. Liam, my son just said ‘I thought they made you better the first time’. There was so much to consider about them as well because they’d been babies really the first time I was sick but this time they knew more. I have to say that the staff at St Brigid’s Primary School in Carnhill where they both attend, have been amazing. And they’ve also been able to use the Pink Ladies Action Cancer childrens’ counselling service which has been brilliant for them. I didn’t want them to be surrounded in doom and gloom so it was so important that they had someone to speak to about everything.”
At the beginning of this year, Michelle had surgery to remove the cancer which had been discovered. However during that first surgery, more tumours were discovered and subsequent surgery showed up cancer in the muscle of her chest.
“The bad news just seemed to keep coming at that point,” says Michelle.
Because of the complications, Michelle decided to have a radical mastectomy. This differed from her initital mastectomy because there was no option for reconstructive surgery.
“Everything was going this time, but in my mind, it was a small price to pay if it meant I had a better chance of recovery,” she says.
On February 16, Michelle underwent the radical mastectomy.
“Surgically now, there’s nothing more they can do. It’s gone and all I needed was a round of chemotherapy to mop up what was left.”
After finishing chemotherapy less than a fortnight ago, Michelle is feeling positive.
“I’m a positive person anyway. In my mind, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry! And while it was a massive step for me personally, after having the radical mastectomy, I feel a lot better about things going forward.”
Michelle has nothing but praise for her family, friends, and her partner Gavin all of whom she says have been a massive support to her since November.
“The Pink Ladies have been amazing and so have my family and my children. People have just been so supportive. Every time I looked around there was somebody there to help. I don’t know what I would have done without all that help.”
Recently, Michelle’s brother Gerard made a surprise trip home from Canada to visit her.
“It was amazing seeing him because I’d had to tell him the news about the diagnosis over Skype. That was tough. When someone’s so far away and have you to give them that news it’s difficult. But it was great to see him after my surgery and chemo.”
Michelle says her sister Kate, who is a nurse in Altnagelving’s Sperrin Ward has also helped her enormously in recent months.
“Anytime I had a question or a worry about any aspect of the treatment, I had someone I could ask, and Kate was amazing. All the nurses in that unit are walking angels. The help and support they give is just unbelievable.”
Over the coming years, Michelle will undergo a strict routine of hormone treatments every four weeks for five years and a number of new oral drugs as well as regular three monthly check ups.
But that’s just the medical plan. The plans in between are way more important.
On Wednesday, Michelle and her son Liam went to watch live wrestling in Belfast after shopping for his First Holy Communion Outfit. This weekend, she’s taking her daughter Grace to see One Direction.
Because that is what you do when you realise, more than most, that every single moment in life is precious.
“I’m doing as much as I possibly can from now on. I’m not saying no to anything now,” she smiles.