Sandra Biddle: “I just knew in my heart of hearts that something was wrong”

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For a woman known for communication, as the proprietor of the Foyle Speech and Drama School, it’s a surprise to find that Sandra Biddle finds it hard to talk about her cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

“I’m a really private person,” she says, “and I don’t really talk about it at all very much. It was just something that happened and that’s it.”

But, with some gentle persuasion, she soon opens up about her breast cancer.

“I was diagnosed at 2.20pm on 26th August 1999. It was a horrific experience, and it ultimately changed my life.”

Aged just 37, and with no prominent or obvious lump to point to a diagnosis of cancer, Sandra says she was sure she would be the one sent on home after the mammogram. Except she wasn’t. Instead she was booked in for an ultrasound.

“There was no history of cancer in my family and all I had was an ache. But after the ultrasound they asked me to come back the next day for a needle biopsy. All I could think about was the number of things that needed to be done. It was the end of August, my three girls were all due to go back to school the following week, Aoibheann starting Primary One, Blathnaid into Primary Three and my eldest girl, Mairiosa going into her first year at Lumen Christi.

“I remember thinking I didn’t have time for it but I could read the non-verbal communication signals that the doctor and nurse were giving out - and I knew it wasn’t good.”

Sandra still didn’t tell anyone she was getting investigations carried out and travelled to Altnagelvin Hospital for the needle biopsy the next day on her own.

“Even at this stage I thought they must be getting this wrong, it was a whole fuss about nothing. But they told me I needed to come back that afternoon with someone with me. My husband John was away working on the oil rigs and I knew my own house would be full of fun and I couldn’t interrupt that happy hub.

“I drove to my parents’ house and as soon as I spoke a silence seemed to come over the room. They both knew something was wrong. My father is a man’s man but for the first time in my life he started to cry. He was heart broken.”

The return trip to the hospital that afternoon revealed what Sandra already knew. “In my heart of hearts I knew it was something. And at 2.20pm the consultant radiologist confirmed that I had breast cancer. My mum tried to speak but she just started to cry.

“I remember not crying. Instead I asked, ‘Will I able to do my Christmas show?’ Really I wasn’t being as flippant as that, it was just a roundabout way, as we women do, of asking him how long I might have.”

With no answer forthcoming and a discussion about Sandra’s treatment plan required, Sandra listened in shock. “I just needed John home. I rang him that evening and he was on the first helicopter back.”

Sandra’s ‘rock’ stayed home for a further year while she underwent treatment. “The girls and I are John’s life. I couldn’t be without him. But that year was tough. Financially it was a strain and we only managed with help from family, but having him at home was what I needed.”

Sandra had surgery to remove the tumour a week after the biopsy, and then underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy simultaneously.

“Travelling to Belfast was tough alongside the chemotherapy. It wasn’t an easy time. But I knew the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes, that was something good. I got my last radiotherapy on 23rd December 1999 and my last chemotherapy on 31st December 1999. That evening we had a party at home to bring in the new millennium.”

That night was a drawing of the line in the sand moment for Sandra.

“It was a momentous time, to start the new year afresh, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually.”

Talking of faith Sandra says, “If we are a people of belief then we need to ask, so we can receive, and knock so the door will be opened. I didn’t just knock, I battered that door! I constantly bargained with God. ‘If you get me past this, I’ll do that.’ I desperately wanted to be here to see my children’s milestones. Every one that I’ve witnessed since has been an honour and privilege to be at.

“This year my eldest daughter is getting married and then emigrating to New Zealand, my middle girl has just graduated and will be starting work as a teacher in September, while my youngest is about to start her second year at university. Yet at the time I was diagnosed I couldn’t see past the next day.

“I still get anxious. Every time I have even something as small as a cold I ring my friends Martina and Cathy, both of whom are nurses, for reassurance.”

She also has some timely advice. “Don’t be complacent. I ticked none of the boxes and yet I still walked away that day with a cancer diagnosis. Listen to your inner voice, don’t put off that visit to the doctors because you think you’re too busy; if you’re worried about something get it checked out.

Sandra insists the whole experience has also changed her for the better too. “I forgive and forget easier I suppose. Life’s too short.”

But looking back she wishes she could have “not lived in fear for so long. If someone could have told me at the start that I would be here 15 years later, that would have helped so much.

“It’s so exciting to see the new research that’s constantly going on. That is our future, a world where cancer can be treated easier.”

First published 12 July 2014