Sharon O’Connor – Patient Story

“Our world went into a spin. I was only 39. Cancer was something that happened other people not me… I had to have more tests to check if the cancer had spread anywhere else in my body. My blood ran cold. The thought that it might have spread was terrifying.”

While in the shower in August 2019 I was washing under my left arm when I felt a lump. I examined my breasts and there was no “lump” in the breast though the left one was slightly firmer than the right one. This in itself wasn’t a worrying sign for me because I was only about a year finished breastfeeding my daughter and that breast had always been slightly bigger and produced more milk. I gave it a few days and the lump under my arm didn’t go away so I made an appointment with my GP. He struggled to find the lump but when he did, he said he would make a referral to the breast clinic in St James hospital. I had an appointment within 2 weeks.

The morning of my first appointment I was there at 8am and by shortly after 9am I had seen a doctor, had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. I knew from the way the staff were doing the ultrasound and biopsy that there was something not only under my arm but in my breast too. A short while later I met Ms. Connolly. She explained that something had shown up and they were concerned about it, I think I knew then what it was.

A week later myself and my husband Rob were in with Ms. Connolly again and she told us that unfortunately I had estrogen positive breast cancer. Our world went into a spin. I was only 39. Cancer was something that happened other people not me. She was soft and empathetic towards us both but factual in what she told us which is exactly what I needed. I asked her about treatment, and she said I had to have more tests to check if the cancer had spread anywhere else in my body. My blood ran cold. The thought that it might have spread was terrifying.

The following week was the longest week of my life. The thought of leaving my children behind was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. Brian and Aria were only 5 and 3 at the time. I had a myriad of scans and blood tests that week but when we went back it was good news. The cancer had not spread beyond my lymph node. I also got my treatment plan – Chemotherapy, a full single mastectomy and then radiotherapy.

A couple of weeks passed before I met my oncologist Prof. Kennedy. He explained the chemo I would get and asked if I would be willing to take part in a clinical trial. I was given information on it and asked to come back the following day with a decision. I jumped at the chance. Not only are clinical trials of huge benefit in terms of advancing treatments but participants are monitored a little more closely for years to come and that peace of mind is worth its weight in gold.

More tests followed for the trial and eventually I started chemo in October 2019. I had 12 rounds of Taxol which was weekly and 4 rounds of AC which was every two weeks. I also had the trial drug/placebo every 3 weeks.  Before I started, I had my long hair cut into a short style. As soon as it started to shed a little Rob and the kids gave me a buzz cut. It gave me a sense of control over a situation that I had so very little in. I didn’t have too many side effects and any I had were quickly sorted by Prof Kennedy, my trials nurse Michelle and all the oncology team. June and all the nurses on the day ward were always there to hold my hand when things got tough too and I will forever feel indebted to them.  I was in my final year of my psychology degree so I would spend my time in the day ward writing my thesis. I got to know every quiet nook and cranny of St. James not to mention where all the plug sockets where for my laptop. I was exhausted but tried to keep things as normal as possible at home for the kids as well as continuing with my studies. I finished chemo at the end of February and handed in my thesis three weeks later in March 2019 in the midst of covid and the first lock down and all the uncertainty that went with it.

I turned 40 at the start of April and 6 days later went to the Beacon for my mastectomy as there were no surgeries happening in St James. Ms. Connolly preformed my surgery there. She personally rang my husband afterwards to let him know I was out of surgery and doing well. I think I had underestimated the impact the surgery would have on my physical movements for the first few weeks. Twelve days after the surgery I took my final college exam from the box room and two days after that I got a call to say the pathology results were back and they were happy they got clear margins. I was cancer free. They were also able to tell me the weight of the breast they removed (1.6kg) which meant my sister and brother-in-law won the sweepstake we had before my surgery to guess the weight.

Next came radiotherapy, 15 sessions in total. I had to hold my breath during each “zap” and by the end I was holding it for longer than I thought possible of myself.  Again, I was lucky the only real side effect was tiredness. That finished on 15th June 2020. I was doing the 100k in 30 days for charity at the time, so we celebrated with a socially distanced walk in the phoenix park with a group of friends and family.

I have since found out that I have the BRCA2 mutation and have had a hysterectomy and am waiting for a mastectomy of my right breast.

The care I received in St James’s Hospital throughout my cancer journey was second to none. I always felt like I was in the best hands throughout my treatment. The doctors gave me all the facts and information I needed at each stage and the nurses were always there to hold my hand when things got tough.

I would urge anybody who is able to donate to the fundraising efforts of St James to get Irelands first ever Chemotherapy Compounding Robot. Anything that helps in the process of preparing chemo will be of huge benefit to the patients and make their journey easier.

Thank you so much to Sharon for taking the time to share her cancer journey with us.

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