Deborah McGlinchey: “I may have had breast cancer twice, but worse things could have happened”

Deborah McGlinchey.  (1204JB18)
Deborah McGlinchey. (1204JB18)

Clearly and concisely Deborah McGlinchey recalls her breast cancer diagnoses with no hesitancy.

They are stories she knows upside down and inside out. They are the moments she can remember as though they happened yesterday.

Yet her first cancer diagnosis was five years ago, in 2009.

She had found a lump, “but it was moving, not static, and my doctor didn’t seem too concerned. I was sent for a mammogram just to be on the safe side.”

The mammogram came back clear and the hospital were satisfied that it was a cyst.

But the lump persisted and at the same time, Deborah’s aunt had emigrated to America, only to find once she got there, that she had breast cancer.

With this news playing on her mind, and an overwhelming tiredness plaguing her everyday life, Deborah went back to her GP.

“They didn’t think I would be seen back at the breast clinic so quickly but my GP stressed my family history, which included two cousins in Scotland who had also been diagnosed.

“At the doctors I had a full blood count taken which came back as abnormal. These had to be repeated and while I waited on the full results I was called to attend the breast clinic.

“I went on the 23rd December, not telling anyone I was going. And as before, the mammogram didn’t show anything.

“But as the hours passed I had to phone my work to say I wouldn’t be back, and the snow was falling thick on the ground, so I remember thinking I would have trouble getting home.

“An ultrasound was carried out next and then a nurse called me in, asking me to lie on my side. She mentioned a biopsy and I realised she was going to do it right away. I always imagined these things taking ages but 20 minutes later they had tested the cells, and they were inconclusive.”

A wait overnight while the cells were studied further in the laboratories stretched ahead, and on Christmas Eve 2009 Deborah had a call, asking her to attend another appointment on 30th January.

“I wasn’t told over the phone but I just knew. And everything happened very quickly after that. My 36th birthday was on the 9th January and the operation was completed before then.

“I was informed that I needed a lumpectomy, removing the lump and the surrounding area, as well as testing my lymph nodes and removing any that showed any cancerous cells.”

Throughout the diagnosis Deborah had to think about her son Shea, who was in primary four at the time.

“I’m a single mother, it’s just me and him at home so I knew he had to know something.

“I got my own head around everything first though and then told him the very basics. Now Shea calls himself my right arm.

“My parents are so supportive, so I knew that they would be looking after him while I had to be in hospital, and the recovery period afterwards.

“I didn’t need chemotherapy as the cancer I had was identified as not responsive to chemo, but I travelled to Belfast Monday to Friday for four weeks for radiotherapy. Unbelievably there was a girl I went to school with also making the trip so our family and hers were able to split the journeys.”

Prescribed Tamoxifen, Deborah soon found that she couldn’t tolerate the side effects. “I had every side effect going so it was decided to take me off it. My medical team weighed up the benefits long-term versus how it was affecting my everyday life. They checked me regularly with scans and blood tests so I was well monitored.”

Others who helped Deborah through included the Action Cancer team, as well as the local Pink Ladies Group who Deborah is now a part of.

“I really benefited from a series of complimentary therapies. Both groups offer counselling, reflexology and Indian head massages. Going through cancer treatment is incredibly stressful so they really helped.”

Deborah is so very obviously positive by nature. She repeatedly insists that “worse things could have happened.”

However, it didn’t get any easier as she was dealt a blow in January 2013 she wasn’t expecting.

“The cancer was back a second time and this time my only options were a full mastectomy, with or without reconstruction.

“I had always swore if it returned I would have it all removed without reconstruction but my surgeon was really helpful, and I couldn’t help but have confidence in her.

“I was booked in to have the operation two months later - I was to be the surgeon’s last patient at Altnagelvin before she moved on. That was a long wait, every day seemed to drag, but I kept myself busy and there were a lot of tests to get through too; bone scans, bloods etc.”

But it was the sitting still afterwards that Deborah found difficult.

“My reconstruction involved talking the muscle from my back and using it to mimic breast tissue. So my back was recovering as well.”

This time Tamoxifen was tried again and thankfully Deborah didn’t react as before.

“I’m still on it and doing well. I joined the Bolt running club so I run quite a bit. That keeps me active and I also look after my diet.”

Deborah is also incredibly thankful for the huge steps made regarding cancer treatment and research.

“It used to be that cancer meant death, but that’s not always the case today. I’ve also had some gene testing done, along with my aunt and cousins. We found that we don’t carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene but there’s something there that we all have. So Bristol University, who are doing the research, have kept our DNA in the hope that they might help identify a further gene that they think may have an impact on breast cancer.”

On this positive note Deborah goes back to work, looking as healthy as the next person.

“They keep an eye on me, that’s great. And as I said, I may have had cancer twice but I’m still here.

“Worse things could have happened.”

The cancer was back a second time and this time my only option was a mastectomy’

First published on 8 August 2015