Rachael-Ann McCarney was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in her 20s, despite being fit, healthy and active.

Care for Your Pair!

Cootehill Cancer survivor says it’s important to be breast aware

A young Cavan woman, who waited almost 16 weeks for scans on a lump on her breast, which tripled in size over that same period, is urging others to be breast aware.

Ultimately, Rachael-Ann McCarney was forced to seek a private consultation. Now looking back, the Cootehill native considers that single decision may have been the difference between life and death.

“I was told if I hadn’t this seen to in the next few months, I would’ve been looking at maybe only two years left to live,” reflects Rachael-Ann. “It’s not something you expect to hear in your twenties.”

Just one month before celebrating her 28th birthday last year, Rachael-Ann received news she had developed an aggressive type of cancer in her left breast.

She knew by her doctor’s face that the news wasn’t good. “Her eyes said it all, there was something not right,” remembers the Dublin-based school teacher.

Now Rachael-Ann, who is still undergoing treatment, is encouraging others to be breast aware by promoting the Irish Cancer Society’s ‘Care for Your Pair’ campaign, part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October.

It was in August 2020, emerging from lockdown and with schools preparing to return, that Rachael-Ann first discovered the lump. Her initial thoughts that there was “nothing to worry about”.

“You know, ‘young and invincible’. I was keeping very active during lockdown, doing all the right things,” she says.

Also not wanting to burden an already-embattled health system, she tells the Celt: “I thought maybe it was exercise related. But, as the weeks passed, it became evident the lump was growing, and at quite an alarming rate.”

It was then a “fear took over”. With “history” of cancer on both sides of her family, Rachael-Ann says it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2020 that gave her “push” needed to finally go see her GP.

“I should’ve gone straight away, but you always have that voice in your head convincing you ‘it can’t be’ and ‘it’ll never happen to me’. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

Rachael-Ann saw her GP in mid-October, who performed a simple examination. Where she had found just one lump, the doctor found two.

Taking no chances, Rachael-Ann was referred immediately for further scans. They were expected to take place within two to six weeks. Incredibly, 16 weeks later, Rachael-Ann still hadn’t received a call. “I gave them a call in December and they dismissed me on the phone saying it wasn’t urgent, even through it was an urgent referral.”

Rachael-Ann’s doctor even tried to push things forward, but to no avail.

By now, and during the January lockdown, Rachael-Ann was waking up to find lump in her breast giving off a feeling as if it were “on fire”.

“It was like my body was trying to tell me something. When the GP examined me the first time it measured one centimetre, and now it was measuring seven plus.”

But Rachael-Ann wasn’t taking any chances.

She counts herself “lucky” having had the opportunity to “go private”. She booked herself into the Beacon Hospital, one of the few medical facilities in the country still operating “as normal” as possible during that stage of the pandemic. Soon after, she was fast-tracked to Beaumont Hospital where Rachael-Ann then underwent an MRI, ultrasound and biopsy.

Her results confirmed that Rachael-Ann had developed Triple Negative Breast Cancer, considered to be more aggressive and have a poorer prognosis than other types of breast cancer.

Overall, there were four cancerous tumours in Rachael-Ann’s left breast, but luckily there was only sign of disease in one of her lymph nodes.

What shocks Rachael-Ann most now looking back was that she didn’t look or feel in any way unwell. “I had no other symptoms besides the lump. In my opinion, I was the fittest I’d ever been.”

Breaking the news that Rachael-Ann had cancer, and a particularly aggressive form at that, didn’t just end there. Because her left breast was so diseased, she would have to undergo a mastectomy.

Rachael-Ann recounts making that decision, and getting a phone call from a nurse before heading to surgery which made her laugh. “[She] asked me had I thought about saving my nipple areola complex. It made me laugh. Never in my life did I think I’d have to even consider a decision like that at my age. I usually can’t even decide where to go or what I want for lunch.”

Taking all into consideration, including future possible risks, Rachael-Ann opted to have surgery to remove both her breasts. The treatment also included reconstruction, auxiliary clearance on the left side, as well as fertility treatment. All helped make the difficult decision that much easier to accept.

In total, Rachael-Ann spent six hours under the knife with Prof Colm Power leading a skilled team of surgeons.

“I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to worry about this again,” says Rachael-Ann of the double mastectomy. “I wanted to get it over and done with. That was the easiest decision of the whole lot I think. My gut just knew.”

Initially after, Rachael-Ann admits being afraid to look. “I just had a post-op bra on. I was nervous waking up and looking under the covers and finding myself dressed like a mummy, bandaged from head to toe. I had these visions in my head, but when I eventually plucked up the courage to look I was so surprised. I actually said ‘Oh my God they’re much nicer than my old ones’.”

Rachael-Ann was subsequently prescribed 16 rounds of ACT chemotherapy as a preventive measure.

As this article goes to print, she is now preparing to begin several rounds of radiotherapy.

The chemotherapy really tested Rachael-Ann’s strength, but as she puts it: “It brought out a strength in me I never knew I had. The first week was really bad, but the second was better. So I always looked forward to the good days.”

It’s a metaphor for how Rachael-Ann now lives her life. She told this newspaper that, if telling her story can encourage even one woman to become breast aware or “push” them to get a concern checked, it will be worth it.

“I’ll be happy knowing I’ve done something positive. Early detection really did save my life. I never fully understood that until I went through it myself.”