Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in Ireland, with over 3,350 women (and almost 30 men) diagnosed here each year.
Although one in nine women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, many are unaware of the early warning signs, which in some cases can be traced back to something else entirely.
Such was the case of Rachel Akkoç, who had benign cysts in the past. When she started getting chest pains in 2016, people initially thought there was nothing to worry about.
Daffodil Day is Friday March 25th. Use the button below to make a much appreciated donation to the Irish Cancer Society. Anyone with concerns or questions about cancer can call the support hotline at toll-free (1800) 200-700.
“When I was pregnant with my first son in 2005, I was diagnosed with clusters of benign, fluid-filled cysts in my breasts,” she says. “These were monitored regularly and it was not uncommon for me to have palpable lumps. But in 2016, I started noticing intermittent pain in my left breast, and that prompted me to seek an appointment with my GP.
“I was examined and told everything was fine, the pain was most likely cyclical and I might benefit from taking evening primrose oil. But deep down in my heart I felt like it was something more sinister – and if I had known then what I know about breast cancer now I certainly would have gotten a second opinion as cancer is often hard to spot in dense breasts, because it appears white on the mammogram.”
Rachel, who is married to Ejder and has two sons, Ziya, 16, and Zana, 13, was told not to worry.
Two years later, after experiencing some “stabbing pains,” she returned to her GP, who on examination discovered a lump in her armpit that she had actually felt herself, but assumed to be a swollen gland or a benign cyst.
She was referred to her local breast clinic for a triple checkup and at this point began to worry that something was seriously wrong.
“Once the mammogram was done, I knew something was wrong and I involuntarily started shaking with fear,” she says. “After what felt like an eternity, I was told I would need three biopsies on my left breast and armpit. Then I was taken to the counselor and I remember the nurse putting a box of tissues in front of me, so I knew it was going to be bad news – and it was. I was immediately told I had breast cancer and the biopsy results would provide more information.
“I remember getting sick when I heard the word cancer – I was in complete shock. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone or numb in my life. It was like someone pulled the rug out from under me and I lost all my abilities. All I could think about was my two beautiful boys and if I would live to see them grow up.”
The mother-of-two, who worked as the Irish language officer at Letterkenny Institute of Technology until her early retirement last year, received her official diagnosis in November 2018, which she found very difficult to accept. It caused her intense anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
“I was totally confused and at the diagnostic appointment the doctor told me that I had hormone-sensitive stage 2 breast cancer. It was called invasive ductal carcinoma, which he said was most likely in my left side lymph nodes as well,” she says. “I was told I would need chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and endocrine therapy – basically it’s working.
“The counselor said they also needed to see if the cancer had spread anywhere else in my body, so throughout December I underwent ‘staging scans’ and ‘not knowing’ if I would get rid of cancer over the Christmas period blown or not blew my mind both mentally and physically and I spent Christmas Day in floods of tears.
“It was well into January when I was called and told there was no sign the cancer had spread further, which was a great relief.”
Rachel began treatment, which she says made her feel like a “walking dead” as she found it extremely harsh and very isolating. She also underwent surgery to remove the tumor from her left breast and the cancerous growths from that side of her body, as well as a benign mass in her right breast.
After the operation, she developed lymphedema in her left arm, causing swelling and now requiring the wearing of a compression sleeve and daily lymphatic massage. It also means she’s more prone to cellulitis and sepsis.
She’s still undergoing various treatments and therapies, which also have side effects – but while the situation is far from ideal, she’s grateful to be alive.
“I’ve been working on a 10-year plan for two years and to say I live for the day it ends is an understatement as I feel like a 90-year-old woman most days,” says she. “But it’s a necessary evil and if it keeps my cancer from coming back then it was worth it.
“When I found out I had cancer, the boys were only 12 and 10, so I had to put on a brave face for them. We live alone on a mountain in rural Donegal so it was not possible for our family (who live in Dublin and Turkey) to be with me during treatment but I had great support over the phone from my sister. Friends and neighbors also came to help and I received care packages from all over the world, even from Australia.
“Everyone was wonderful and I remember being amazed by the kindness of the people and the love I received. And the only constant source of support at every stage was the Irish Cancer Society – they helped me every step of the way and I was able to avail their free counseling service which helped me deal with the initial shock and the anxiety that followed.
“I also sought advice from our local Daffodil Center and the ICS nurse there could not have been more helpful as she patiently told us everything we needed to know following a cancer diagnosis; B. what support options are available locally, how to seek financial support or how to raise the issue with the children. I was also invited to a makeup class for cancer patients which was a lovely experience with other ladies going through the same hair loss issues and how to use makeup to cover my cancer ravaged face as i had lost mine Eyelashes and eyebrows.”
Since her ordeal, Rachel has been very active in her local cancer services and support groups, including a survivor choir and the local Relay for Life committee. She was also involved in preparing this year’s Daffodil Day fundraiser and says the ICS helped her through the most difficult time of her life.
She would encourage others who have just been diagnosed to take each day as it comes.
“We are really proud as a family to be associated with such a wonderful charity that does so much for cancer patients,” she says. “I hope that as many people as possible get behind this year’s fundraising effort as I truly believe that the fantastic support from the Irish Cancer Society has got me where I am today.
“The best advice I was given was to take everything in bite sized chunks and not think about the big picture or what might happen in a year or two as that can be really overwhelming. I found that taking things day in and day out kept my brain from being sucked down a really bad rabbit hole. I’ve also found it helpful to focus on good news because people are very quick to tell stories about someone who died from the same cancer as you and they can forget who they’re talking to.
“But I found that the pressure to stay positive was a tremendous burden, in a sense that people kept telling me I needed to stay positive to beat my cancer, so I jokingly called it the ‘burden of positivity’. because sometimes it gets exhausting to put on a brave face for others.
“So I decided to change course and tell it like it was, with warts and all. Some people found this difficult and fell away, but I had to do it my way and sometimes it’s okay to just exist and take it all.
“If you can’t do anything but breathe during treatment, then let that be your goal – often just getting through the day is enough.
“But regardless of your diagnosis, there’s always a morsel of hope and holding on to that is the most important thing. Because everyone is different and the human body has amazing healing potential.”
Daffodil Day 2022, the day we recover from cancer, takes place on Friday March 25th. Anyway, take part and recover from cancer, you can follow this daffodil day at cancer.ie/daffodilday
KNOW THE SIGNS
Breast cancer is a common cancer in Ireland. It is diagnosed in more than 3,550 women and about 30 men each year.
The symptoms you get depend on the type of breast cancer you have. Symptoms of breast cancer include:
⬤ A change in the size or shape of your breasts, e.g. B. when one breast grows larger than the other.
⬤ A change in the skin such as wrinkles, lines or dimples (like orange peel) or redness.
⬤ A change in the direction or shape of your nipple, especially if it sinks into your breast or takes on an irregular shape.
⬤ An unusual discharge (fluid) from one or both of your nipples.
⬤ A change in the skin on or around the nipple, such as B. Rash or scaly or crusted skin.
⬤ Swelling in your chest or armpit or around your collarbone.
⬤ A lump or swelling in your breast.
⬤ Constant pain in part of your chest or armpit.
⬤ pain or warmth (inflammatory breast cancer).
If you are concerned about breast cancer speak to your GP or call the Irish Cancer Society Support Line on freephone 1800 200 700.
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/breast-cancer-the-pressure-to-remain-positive-was-a-burden-puttin-on-a-brave-face-is-exhausting-41463545.html Breast Cancer: “The pressure to stay positive was a drag. Putting on a brave face is exhausting.