A local woman who has raised thousands of pounds for local charities after being diagnosed with breast cancer, has heaped praise on the health professionals she has encountered during her treatment.
Mary Hegarty said she was amazed at the support she received during her treatment after her shock diagnosis last year and urged others not to ignore changes to their bodies.
Recalling what happened, Mary (56) said: “I was diagnosed on March 16, 2016. I was working full-time and it was the last thing in my head.
“I had had a mammogram in May, 2014. I wasn’t due another one until May, 2017. I had gone to the doctor last year with a sore hand and when I was at the doctor’s I said, ‘God, I’ve a tingling in my left breast. I’ve no lump or nothing, just that tingling every so often.’ It was a fluke that I mentioned it. I was at the door actually. She couldn’t feel anything but she was concerned about the right breast.”
Taking no chances, the GP referred Mary to hospital.
“About three weeks later I got called for a mammogram. I was at work that morning, but I left to go to hospital totally unconcerned. I had the mammogram and and the medical staff did another one on my left breast,” she said.
“They also carried out an ultrasound and a biopsy and at the time of the biopsy two nurses came in and asked me: ‘Are you on your own?’ I knew then that they had found something. I couldn’t believe it.
“I was then seen by a consultant who told me there was a large tumour in my left breast and it had been diffused. That’s why I didn’t feel the lump. It was spread out. He said there was evidence it was one of the lymph nodes.”
The following week, Mary had to undergo a series of scans to see if the cancer had spread elsewhere and met with consultants before starting chemotherapy at the Sperrin Unit at Altnagelvin on March 31, later undergoing a double mastectomy in August 2016.
Mary also underwent radiotherapy in Belfast and had Herceptin Injections every three weeks for a year up to the end of June this year, when her cancer treatment came to an end.
Throughout that time, as she tried to come to terms with what was happening, Mary said the professionals she encountered from the outset to the end of her treatment had been ‘second to none.’
“My experience was relatively very positive,” she said. “From the treatment at the very beginning and the seemless working of all of the different teams and departments within Altnagelvin Hospital and the Cancer Centre in Belfast, where I attended for radiotherapy.
“The cancer services in Northern Ireland were amazing. From initial diagnosis to treatment, radiologists, the breast nurse, the Sperrin Unit nurses and doctors, the radiologists and then there was a whole other network they refer you to. MacMillan do amazing work for people day and daily; Cancer Focus were very supportive and when I was going through my treatment I stayed in Glenview House while the Northern Irish Cancer Care transported me to and from Belfast. They do that voluntarily and they do an amazing job. There is so much in place. They had psychology, physiotherapy, oncology in place. They have that whole seemless network there. It is traumatic, but they are there to help you. Coming in, you are afraid, you don’t know what is ahead of you and their whole approach to you is just so brilliant.
“You do feel that you are being looked after and safe in that environment. They are amazing people and they do such a hard job.
“I lost my hair on day 19 of first chemo session. There is a lady, Therese Hughes, who does the wigs and she was amazing. The wig she made me was unbelievable. She has the knack of making you something that suits you.”
A year ago, as Mary was undergoing radiotherapy, with October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, her friend Margaret Magennis, hosted an Afternoon Tea Party in Downpatrick, raising £1,000, which she gave to Mary to donate. This was the start of a fundraising drive that Mary undertook with family, friends and local Santander staff.
Mary added: “My sister works in Santander in Strabane and the branch director of Santander in Derry, Jonathan Head, is a friend of mine and they were very good. We got together some of my family and friends and Santander and we organised a Sparkle Ball in the Waterfoot Hotel. We wanted to raise £7,500 and Santander put through a submission to match that.
“We eventually, through the Sparkle Ball, raised £15,000. Santander added their £7,500 and that came to £22,500. The Breast Clinic and Sperrin Unit got £2,500 each. Northern Irish Cancer Care got £5,000, MS Foyle got £5,000. Foyle Search and Rescue £5,000 and Action Duchene got £2,500.
“Three hundred attended the ball as we us amateurs did somethingspecial for local charities. That was important to us and credit to Santander as well as their staff came onboard and did a lot of work.”
Mary thanked her family, friends and work colleagues at Richmond Chambers, as well as Santander, for all their support and generous donations. “Without them this wouldn’t have been possible,” she said.
Mary, who recently retired from her job as Careers Service Manager, said her cancer experience has given her a fresh perspective on life.
“You never think you will get cancer. Growing up, cancer was like a death sentence but what I have realised as a result of all of this, is that people are living with cancer and if it is diagnosed in time you can go on.
“This has opened up a whole different path for me. You reassess everything. You just have to think, ‘right, it’s happened, now move on’. It is tough, but I’m positive, practical, light-hearted in a lot of it. I’ve made life-long friends as a result of all of this, peole I wouldn’t have met. You know there are kind people, but my journey has involved witnessing a lot of kindness in people giving of their time, money, support and help. That has been a total eye opener. There is so much goodness out there.”
And Mary has urged others never to ignore changes in their own bodies. “Be aware,” she said. “I didn’t have a lump and If I had waited until my next mammogram, I was going to get a different prognosis. I might not have made it. That’s the reality.
“October is Breast Cancer Month but not just October, every week be aware of changes to your breasts, sensations, changes to your body, don’t ignore them.
“I was under the impression breast cancer concerned older women but there was a lot of younger women, in their 20s, 30s, 40s being treated at the same time as me. Don’t be afraid to go to the doctor and tell them if you notice any changes. For younger women especially, if you see or feel something you are worried about, pursue it.”
For breast cancer checking advice, see the Cancer Focus guidelines at www.cancerfocusni.org/cancer-info/types-of-cancer/breast-cancer/