‘Get screened - it saved my life’

For Susan Keatings, going along for a mammogram with her best friend had become a routine outing every two years.

At the age of 41, Susan, from Lambeg, near Lisburn, went along to Action Cancer for screening with her friend Carmel, who had been before.

A letter two weeks later provided Susan with a reassuring diagnosis that everything was ok, and two years later, following a reminder from the charity to attend another screening, the student nurse and support worker received similar good news.

However, it was on her third screening at Action Cancer House on February 2, 2017, that something was detected which required further investigation.

“I can remember vividly the date and the time, 5pm on Wednesday, February 8 when I opened the letter with the results of my third screening,” Susan said.

She added: “I just went into complete meltdown. Despite the letter containing reassuring statistics that for most women further investigation rules out cancer, I was convinced that I was in the minority and that I definitely had it and I was going to die.

“I just panicked, I needed to know what I was dealing with ASAP so I decided to go privately and managed to get an appointment with the Ulster Independent Clinic the next evening.”

Nothing could be felt by the consultant on physical examination that evening but following another mammogram, ultrasound and biopsies, Susan came away with a diagnosis of breast cancer in her right breast.

Susan attended a follow up appointment a week later at Belfast City Hospital where she was informed there were two tumours, one was 2cm and one was 9mm. They were both situated in the lower part of the right breast and they were both at Stage 2.

Married to Tony, and mum to Alexander (12) and 10-year-old Sophia, Susan also has three stepdaughters and is a step-nanny - known as ‘Nanny Flossy - to Ava and Arlo.

She admits that despite reassurances from her consultant, her constant fear was not surviving and the impact on her family.

“At this point I just wanted them to cut off both of my breasts, I just wanted rid of everything,” Susan said.

She added: “The consultant, however was very reassuring and advised me that this wasn’t necessary and that the best way forward was to have a lumpectomy and that this would be followed with radiotherapy and potentially chemotherapy.”

Susan’s lumpectomy took place on March 20 and the surgeon managed to get clear margins around the tumours and the cancer had not spread into Susan’s lymph nodes which was good news.

“For me this news was a huge relief, it helped me psychologically to know that the cancer was contained,” Susan said.

She added: “The impact on your mental health is massive, there’s so much uncertainty surrounding your cancer diagnosis. Questions circulate constantly in your head. Am I going to survive this? What will my family’s future be like without me?”

Susan was informed that her results were on the border for whether or not she would need chemotherapy.

Her cells were transported to America for a special test named the Oncotype DX test and came back to say that it would be advantageous for Susan to receive chemotherapy.

“This was bittersweet news for me. In some respects I was nearly glad I was offered it and I’m glad I got it,” she said.

She added: “Although it was absolutely rotten I felt like I got everything available to me, like I was washed out from one end to the other, killing off all the fast dividing cells in the body. I was lowering that risk right down of the cancer returning.”

Beginning in May, Susan had six cycles of chemo every three weeks for a total of 18 weeks.

She recalled: “One of the worst parts of my whole cancer journey was knowing that my hair was going to fall out. For me the anxiety surrounding this was on par with my actual diagnosis.

“The reason was because everyone then knows your business, there’s that paranoia about it. You can get a wig but it’s just not the same.

“I remember one evening, I was sitting at the window, I was bald at this point. I turned to my husband Tony and asked him to shut the blinds as I didn’t want the neighbours to see me.

“My daughter Sophia piped up and said ‘It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside Mummy as long as you are beautiful on the inside and it doesn’t matter if you have no hair you are still beautiful’.

“I was in tears! Sophia then proceeded to get her Barbie and started pulling its hair out and said, ‘look it’s you, mummy Barbie’.

“My nine-year-old year gave me just the fresh perspective that I needed just at the right moment.”

Following chemotherapy, Susan began 25 sessions of radiotherapy treatment in September. Thankfully she didn’t suffer any side effects.

“By this stage I felt there was light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Throughout Susan’s diagnosis and treatment she was studying nursing at Queen’s University Belfast, which included classes, placement and exams.

“I decided to just keep going. People have different ways of dealing with things but for me routine and work was good for me as a distraction; I needed to stay busy,” Susan said.

Susan is now cancer free and has been prescribed Tamoxifen for five years.

Susan’s message to other women is this: “Go get screened, but don’t just go once and think that’s enough.

“It’s vitally important that when you get that reminder letter from Action Cancer that you book another appointment.

“Action Cancer saved my life, I have no doubt about that, they detected my cancer at an early and treatable stage.

“I’m convinced that I never would have found the lumps myself because of how deep in the breast they were situated.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about if I had of waited to get my first mammogram when the NHS screening programme kicks in at 50.

“Early detection saves lives, book your appointment today.”