Four years ago, Sarah Murray was in her GP’s surgery for her daughter’s 12-month vaccinations when she mentioned to her doctor, almost as an afterthought, that she had a swelling under her arm.
A keen tennis player, she was 32 years old, fit, and enjoying the advent of motherhood. In a sense, life had just begun, and the underarm ache would be something benign, she thought. “It wasn’t a lump at all, it felt like a pulled muscle or something, and he wasn’t too concerned, but he sent me straight off for an ultrasound just to double check,” says Sarah.
“When I went for the ultrasound, I knew that day that there was something wrong by the questions the radiographer was asking me, like ‘had I lost any weight recently?’, I said ‘yes because I’ve just had a baby and I’ve been exercising’. ‘Was I tired?’ I said yeah, I’ve just gone back to work and I’m always tired.”
Biopsies revealed that Sarah, had early stage HER2 positive breast cancer which had spread to the lymph nodes, and it was aggressive.
For the next two years, she would have six months of chemotherapy treatment, a mastectomy and auxiliary node clearance, radiotherapy, and targeted drug therapy with Herceptin.
Her cancer was so aggressive, her consultant told her, that time was critical and there would be no possibility of her postponing her treatment to freeze her eggs.
There was no time for her and her husband Robert to protect their chances of having another baby.
“Until that day, I wasn’t in a cancer frame of mind. I was 32, so I was very young. Even when he said it to me, it still didn’t hit me. There was so much to do that it still didn’t hit me – my daughter was 13 months old.”
“It was scary, it was unknown, and I asked him what the future would hold – he said it was going to be a tough year to two years out of my life, but he said that it was caught and we’d beat it,” Sarah says.
Today, Sarah’s children Sadie (5) and nine-month-old Seán are running around her home in Malahide, Co Dublin. It’s simple moments like these, moments shared as a family, that give her joy. Today, she is cancer-free and loving life as a mother-of-two – luckily, her fertility returned nearly two years after her treatment.
While some chemotherapy drugs have no effect on a patient’s fertility; others can affect the ovaries, according to the Irish Cancer Society (ICS). However, the younger a patient is, the more likely her periods are to return to normal and she will still be able to have children.
“I asked the oncologist when I was diagnosed, ‘will I ever be able to have kids again?’ He couldn’t tell me,” Sarah, now 36, explains.
“He said ‘you’re young, the chances of your fertility coming back, because of your age, you’d have more chance’. The fact that I’d had a child already, he didn’t really give me the option. I really needed to go for chemotherapy.”
“About three years after I was diagnosed, I found out I was pregnant with my little baby, Seán. I had said to my consultant after the treatment had finished that my menstrual cycle had come back and would it be a good idea to start trying for another baby, but he said when you pass the two-year mark, I’d be happy then if you wanted to.
“A couple of months later, we said we’ll see if we can have another baby. I didn’t even know if it could happen.
“Sean was born the end of June; he’s nine months now.”
Sarah – who is still going through reconstruction of her breast – says she has finally recovered, both physically and emotionally, from her cancer. But she is keen to speak about the lasting psychological effect the diagnosis and treatment had on her.
“Definitely the hardest was the chemotherapy, without a shadow of a doubt. I had six months, and with the first treatment I had, I thought I was going to die after it. They sent me home and I don’t think I could lift my head or move without vomiting.”
“My sister who is an oncology nurse said you need to ring them; this isn’t normal. I couldn’t move without vomiting. They told us to come straight back in and I was hooked up to all sorts of drugs, and they changed my anti-sickness drugs.”
But the ordeal was far from over. “With each chemo, the harder it got, it wipes more out of your body, I got weaker.”
The “shell shock” of chemotherapy left Sarah with post-traumatic stress, and she turned to the staff in the Daffodil Centre in Dublin’s Beaumont hospital, the freephone cancer nurseline and a psychologist for talk therapy.
“My psychologist said to me, you’re dealing with a massive trauma in your life, you have to deal with it in order to move on. I had a lot of post traumatic stress to live with first,” she says. “I think that’s a misconception in the public eye, that once you’re finished treatment and your hair is growing back, you must be delighted, but no it’s very hard physically and emotionally. You’re very emotional dealing with the effects of a cancer diagnosis.
“It’s honestly only in the last year and a half to two years that I have started to really live life again, and enjoy the moments in my life. It took a while, every day it was hard.”
A strong support network is crucial, Sarah says, and it’s thanks to her mum, her husband and her sister that Sadie’s routine was never affected by her sickness and schedule of treatment, surgeries and hospital appointments.
“I used to worry about spending enough time with her. I went to see a lovely psychologist who told me that children are resilient and a 15-minute burst of one-to-one time with Sadie would be enough. She said if you get down on the ground and engage with her for 15 minutes, that’s her one-on-one time with you and that’s all she needs. To be honest she was 100pc right, that’s all she needed.”
However, she adds: “Now I have to tell her if I’m going in and out of hospital, because I’m still going through the reconstruction, and I can see she gets a little bit worried.
“The psychologist says always tell children the truth, and I do, and now when we look back on photos and she sees that I have no hair – we say ‘mum was sick’.”
On the north coast of Dublin, just before tomorrow’s Daffodil Day, which raises crucial funds to support cancer patients and their families, Sarah walks Seán along the beach, quietly celebrating how far she’s come.
“I always remember my GP and psychologist saying ‘it’s a trauma you’ve been through and it’s time that will help’. They were right; time kind of is the only healer.”
“Two years after I was diagnosed, I went back to work, and just being back, being a part of society again in the nine-to-five routine, and chatting to people about normal stuff was really good. They were happy events for me. I enjoyed getting back to feeling normal and feeling a part of society.”
“Being able to go to crèche to collect Sadie and being able to chat to Sadie and be normal is a great feeling… A lot of what I enjoy is just being at home with my family.”
The Irish Cancer Society’s annual Daffodil Day fundraiser appeal takes place tomorrow. For more information, see cancer.ie