ABOVE: Olive with her daughter Kate
A Story Half Told campaign aims to highlight the extent of misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding the most advanced stage of breast cancer, and the need to widen the conversation around breast cancer in Ireland to include metastatic breast cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of breast cancer, in which the disease has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body. Typically, metastatic breast cancer spreads from the breast to the bones, liver, brain, or lungs.
According to Professor John Crown, Consultant Medical Oncologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital Dublin: “Metastatic breast cancer is a common, treatable, life-threatening, life-limiting illness. The needs of patients with metastatic breast cancer are distinct from those of patients with early stage breast cancer. Improved treatment is resulting in longer survival and improved quality of life. The healthcare system needs to do more to improve outcomes for patients with metastatic breast cancer.”
New survey results outlined in the report reveal that 95 per cent of women in Ireland believe breast cancer can be cured if it’s caught and treated early.
However, early detection does not help survival for metastatic breast cancer patients – average survival for women with metastatic breast cancer is two to three years.
The first of its kind survey was commissioned by Pfizer, as part of the ‘A Story Half Told’ campaign in conjunction with Ireland’s leading cancer support groups (Europa Donna Ireland, the Irish Cancer Society and the Marie Keating Foundation).
The experiences of those living with metastatic breast cancer (as many as 1,500 to 2,000 people in Ireland at any one time) are rarely spoken about.
“This is a situation that compounds the sense of isolation and hopelessness felt by many,” said Tara Byrne of Europa Donna Ireland. “Europa Donna Ireland want to build a safe community where people with mBC can connect with each other to find support and share experiences.”
According to the National Cancer Registry of Ireland there are almost 30,000 women living with breast cancer in Ireland. The incidence of female breast cancer in Ireland is 12.5 per cent higher than the EU average, with over 2800 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year.
Brave mum’s cancer battle
Galway mother-of-four Olive Shaughnessy (41) was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer in December 2014. She talks to Mary O’Brien about her journey and her determined fight for her life.
On December 19, 2014, Olive Shaughnessy was taking her children on their traditional Christmas outing to the cinema. Afterwards, she bent down to pick something up. “I suddenly saw double. I can remember nothing more after that, but I was told I suffered something like an epileptic fit.
“I look back and my only thought is that God was looking after me, as I was was about to hop into the car with the children.”
Olive was completely unconscious by the time the ambulance came. When I woke up, I was in excruciating pain all down my neck. I just said to my husband Tom – words that I will never use again – ‘just get them to finish me off, I can’t bear the pain’.
“It’s strange what goes through your head. I remember thinking ‘what if they don’t believe me and send me home with this pain’.”
Olive was told she had a broken neck. “Out of the seven vertebrates, four were rotted with cancer. The doctor told me that my bones were full of holes.”
The community youth worker was diagnosed with advanced, or metastatic, breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes, neck, spine and one of her lungs.
“I was always exercising, always so healthy and fit, that this came as a great shock. I wasn’t sick, I ate properly, I had loads of energy and there were absolutely no signs of any illness before this happened.”
Determined to beat her prognosis for the sake of her children, Olive is fighting this cancer off with everything she has. “There is nothing going to take me away from my four small darling children,” she says passionately
“When I wake up in the morning, my body aches from head to toe and I have terrible pain. So, for the first few minutes I have a choice. I can stay in bed and feel sorry for myself or get up and help my children get out to school.
“I’ll have to have chemotherapy for the rest of my life and I’m on a lot of medication, but I’m able to get up in the morning and function, so I’m grateful for that.
“I know the statistics aren’t good, but they are just statistics, and miracles happen all the time,” says Olive.
Since her prognosis, Olive has written a book ‘My Olive Branch – My Second Chance’, which she hopes will help others.
You can read Olive’s blog at mycoffaith.wordpress.com.