‘You have to be your own hero and be proactive with your health’
Cancer doesn’t just affect the person who has been diagnosed and has a huge impact on family and friends.
Michelle McLaren, development worker with Pink Ladies Cancer Support, knows only too well the ‘sore blow for everyone around you’ a cancer diagnosis can have.
She was just 25-years-old when she was first diagnosed with cancer, in September 2007.
“At that time I was completely naive and to be quite honest I never knew anything about breast cancer at all.”
Michelle had found a pea sized lump on the side of her breast a year earlier.
“I had just finished breastfeeding my second child and thought it was because I had gone back to wearing underwired bras, as it seemed to be in the area where the wire would end.”
Because of her young age and the lack of a family history, breast cancer was discounted as a cause of the lump.
“It was so unknown in young women at the time. When I began working for Pink Ladies years later, I was determined that the age barrier would be removed and people would look at the symptomatic person sitting in front of them.”
Michelle’s family gathered the money for her to be assessed by a private clinic in Belfast and within an hour she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“By the time I was actually seen, I had three tumours on the one breast. I will never forget that journey back from Belfast and I don’t think I spoke the whole way home. All I could think of was who is going to look after my wains?”
Michelle was referred to Altnagelvin and she said the staff there were ‘just amazing’.
“I was scheduled to have a mastectomy and I really didn’t know what that was, what it would look like afterwards or realise how much of the chest area the breast actually covers.
“I was really shocked after I woke up from the surgery and looked at myself.”
Michelle went on to have six rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and following the treatment was under review for five years.
“I went back to university and decided after three years, feeling really healthy in myself, to go for a reconstruction. It was great because I felt like I was getting my life back together, trying to erase the visual memories that I was left with of the cancer.
“Body image is so important and a very difficult subject for anyone going through surgery, may it be for bowel cancer, breast cancer or testicular cancer. You have a new body and you have to learn to accept that, but it can affect your relationships and intimacy.”
Michelle was six years cancer free, when she noticed a swelling under her arm while getting ready for a Christmas night out.
“Life was really looking up for me at the time. I had graduated, I had just started working for the Pink Ladies and had turned 30. I had met all the wee goals I had set myself. It was a devastating blow for the cancer to return.”
The cancer was in her chest wall, lymph nodes and in the reconstructed breast.
“I had to have it all taken away - the reconstruction, muscle and everything taken away from the chest wall. And I knew that reconstruction was not an option for me this time around.”
Michelle also went through chemotherapy for a second time and she has now been cancer free for seven years.
“I am not the same person I was before, either physically or mentally, and I probably never will be. I struggle really badly with anxiety and depression and I have other conditions as a result of the treatment I have had to take for the cancer.
“I still have a battle everyday, but I try to remain positive and live everyday.”
Michelle said she also listens to her body more now and accepts the days when she doesn’t feel like doing anything and makes up for it on the days when she does.
“I am more aware of my body because of everything I have been through and because of the shared experience with the other women in Pink Ladies.
“I never knew about Pink Ladies when I was first diagnosed, they were only in their infancy.
“The second time I was diagnosed I was a member of staff, to have that support and the support of other women who were on that journey got me through some of my darkest days and it still does.”
Michelle is hugely passionate about early detection and urged people not to be ‘dying of embarrassment.’
“If there’s something you’re worried about in your body, get it checked. If you are uncomfortable seeing a male doctor, or for a man a female doctor, ask to see one you are more comfortable with.
“Early detection does save lives and no one knows your body better than you ,” Michelle added.
“You have to be your own hero and be proactive with your health. Ignoring things won’t mean they will go away.”
She also encouraged anyone who is worried about their health to reach out to Pink Ladies’.
“Anyone who is worried about anything, or maybe someone who is caring for someone with a life limited illness who wants advice, support or advocacy, get in touch. We are here to support everybody.”
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