Derry sisters enjoy first post-cancer Christmas

Derry sisters Sarah Shiels and Theresa Kelly have always been very close and shared lots of things together, but over the past three years, fate saw them share something neither of them could ever have imagined.

The sisters – both cancer survivors – are now backing a Cancer Research UK campaign to help save more lives, as they prepared to enjoy a very special Christmas thanks to research.

In June 2018, when Sarah heard the words ‘you have cancer’, her life changed in ways that she could never have imagined. “I had an irritation on my nipple, which I thought was just a skin reaction to something,” said Sarah, “but as time went on I found I was having to put dressings on it all the time and it became itchy.”

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Three family members had been diagnosed with cancer, but when her cousin’s wife Sheena sadly died from cancer it spurred Sarah on to seek advice. “I had also read an article in a magazine which was similar to what I had been experiencing and it mentioned itching,” she added. “This finally prompted me to see my GP.

Sisters Sarah Shields and Theresa Kelly pictured in the City Hotel earlier this week. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2150GS – 002

“I was really fortunate to be seen within two weeks and five weeks later I had an appointment at the breast clinic. Nothing showed in the mammogram so they did a biopsy.

“One week later I returned for the results. I went alone, not one bit concerned as I was sure it was nothing to worry about – after all the mammogram was clear.”

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The result of the biopsy confirmed that Sarah had stage three Her2 negative breast cancer and a scan showed that it was in three places.

“I asked to have a double mastectomy, but my oncologist explained that although my cancer was aggressive, it was not fast growing, so advised chemotherapy prior to surgery.

Sisters Theresa Kelly and Sarah Shields pictured in the City Hotel earlier this week. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2150GS – 001

“Halfway through my chemo I developed a chest infection which was continuous for three months, so when I returned to the hospital to discuss my surgery, I saw a different surgeon.

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“Having had six months to think about it, I was convinced that a double mastectomy was the right decision for me.

“However, the surgeon wanted to know my reason for requesting this. I explained that as the mammogram had not shown the cancer, I would be constantly worried about it happening again and this would give me peace of mind.”

Sarah was relieved when he said that was a good enough reason and her surgery took place in December 2018.

But her journey wasn’t over as in February 2019 she had to travel to the Royal Marsden in Sutton for very specific radiotherapy treatment lasting three weeks.

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“I had an opportunity to speak to the doctor who pioneered this treatment and she explained it involved taking a deep breath and holding it – which meant the lungs and heart were moved, enabling them to place the radiotherapy in the right place. This treatment is now available in the Cancer Centres in Belfast and Derry.

“I am so grateful for all the support I received from my sisters who made a rota, taking turns to stay with me during this treatment, especially my daughter Emma and sister Theresa who were my rock.”

Unfortunately Sarah required further surgery in July 2019 to remove fluid which had gathered, followed by treatment with the drug Herceptin. She is now well and enjoying life.

Sarah described how losing a lot of weight during her treatment turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “ I have become a different person and my whole outlook on life has changed. It strips you down. My whole wardrobe changed – I am now wearing clothes I never would have worn before and am much more confident. I just put my head down and got on with it,” she added “and the outcome has been very positive. However I am very lucky, as I waited two years before seeing my GP so I would say to others, please do not do what I did. The earlier cancer is diagnosed the better the outcome.”

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Sarah finished treatment in October 2019 and just two weeks later, the unthinkable happened. Her sister Theresa was diagnosed with Her2 positive breast cancer.

Theresa takes up the story. “ About five years ago I found a lump on my right breast, which turned out to be a cyst and it was drained. There was also a small one on the left hand side and the decision was made to leave it. As time went on I felt a lump and assumed this cyst had grown and would also need to be drained.”

Sarah’s diagnosis prompted her to seek medical advice and having been referred to the breast clinic, Theresa – just like Sarah – went alone to get her results, thinking it would just be the same procedure as before.

“However, as time went by I began to feel anxious,” she said. “The waiting room emptied until there was just one other lady and myself left. I phoned Sarah and said ‘I have been here almost four hours, should I be worried?’

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“Within five minutes she was at my side and was there for me when I received the devastating news that I too had breast cancer.”

“I was devastated,” adds Sarah. “ I felt that I had just gone through the door and someone had pulled me back in again.”

Theresa had a mastectomy and reconstruction followed by six rounds of chemotherapy which was to run from January to March.

“I had just had my fourth round when Covid19 struck, so my last two rounds were cancelled,” said Theresa “Treatment resumed in May. 2020 when I had radiotherapy. I thought I may have also been given my final two rounds of chemotherapy, but my oncologist said the first four was enough. I must admit that at times I do wonder if missing the final two could affect my outcome, but I don’t allow myself to dwell on it.”

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Theresa has four-monthly scans and as a result, an area was spotted on her breast bone, which she has been told may be cancer, but it is too small to be definitive. As a precaution she is being treated with a drug to strengthen her bones together with the drug Tamoxifen.

“There has been no change in the last year and a half,” she said “ it is always in the back of my mind, but I am a positive person, I feel well and I will deal with it if it happens. I see my oncologist regularly, which is reassuring.

“However, I don’t think I could have coped without my sister Sarah, who has been there for me with encouragement and sometimes a little bit of tough love, when I felt I could not go on. I am also very grateful to my partner Dermot, daughter Seana and son James for all their love and support.”

Sarah and Theresa say that their experience means they understand the importance of Cancer Research UK’s work all too clearly.

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“With a very special Christmas on the horizon, our first in three years, we are so grateful for the treatment that saved our lives. We have been given the greatest gift of all – more precious time with our loved ones. So we hope people will donate this festive season and help give hope to more families like ours.”

Each year around 1,500 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Northern Ireland.

Thanks to its supporters, Cancer Research UK’s work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.

The charity’s ambition is to see 3 in 4 people survive their cancer by 2034.

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Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Northern Ireland, said: “We are grateful to Sarah and Theresa for their support. Cancer is relentless but so are we. We will never stop striving to find better treatments, but we can’t do it alone.

“This past year proves, more than any other, the value of research and what can be achieved together. Just like science is our route out of the pandemic, science is our route to beating cancer.

“That’s why we want to harness the ‘people power’ of our incredible supporters, because the progress we make relies on every hour of research, every pound donated and everyone who gets involved.

“ So, whether they donate, fundraise, volunteer at our shops or pledge to leave a gift in their Will - with the help of people in Northern Ireland we believe that together we will beat cancer.”

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Cancer Research UK was able to spend over £2m last year on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.

Donate to support life-saving research at cruk.org/donate.

PLAY A PART

Sarah and Theresa are very grateful to Cancer Research UK whose research helped develop the drugs they received during their treatment.

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Cancer Research UK’s work was key in the development of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, which Sarah has been treated with.

Cancer Research UK funded many large trials in the 1980s and 1990s looking at the effectiveness of the drug tamoxifen, which Theresa has been treated with, and their research has shaped the way we use the drug to treat breast cancer today.

Cancer Research UK is investing up to £56 million through the Cancer Research UK Radiation Research Network (RadNet) to accelerate the development of advanced and pioneering radiotherapy techniques.

To play your part and help support the vital research that will beat cancer, visit cruk.org.