Rachael-Ann McCarney.

Cancer survivor fights for lower breast check age

Rachael Ann McCarney’s treatment finished exactly nine months from the day she was first diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in March 2021, a month before her 28th birthday. As a survivor she knows she’s been extremely lucky, and in recognition of that achievement, she is close to completing 100km in 30 days during the month of June as a way of giving something back and inspiring others in their journey to recovery.

Self-check and early detection saved Rachael Ann’s life and she’s using her position as an ambassador for June’s 100k in 30 days appeal to encourage others to follow the same guidance.

Rachael Ann (29) last spoke to the Celt in the run up to Breast Cancer Awareness month (October). The day she found out her cancer hadn’t spread beyond the lymph nodes changed her life forever. She is eager to raise awareness, especially among young people, she says: “It’s amazing to have come this far. This time last year was probably the darkest month I’ve lived. I was so sick. I remember one day I was so weak I couldn’t even climb the stairs or plug my phone charger in beside my bed. I never thought at that stage I’d come out the otherside and now be doing so well.”

Because the cancer in Rachael-Ann’s left breast was so aggressive, she opted to have a double mastectomy. The treatment also included reconstruction and fertility treatment. All helped make, what was a difficult decision, that much easier to accept.

Approximately 10 lumps were found in total, four of which were cancerous and the largest measuring 9cm.

Rachael Ann needed 16 rounds of ACT (AC followed by Taxol) chemotherapy and 20 sessions of radiotherapy as a preventive measure to give herself the best chance going forward. She had her final chemotherapy on October 12, 2021, then a short break followed by four more weeks of radiotherapy, which finished on December 1, 2021.

The Cavan woman returned to work as a primary school teacher in Dublin in January, and is now preparing to live life to its fullest, taking a career break next year in order to travel the world, starting her trip with a childhood best friend in Mexico.

As the Celt speaks with Rachael Ann, she’s busy pulling the remnants of blu-tack from her classroom walls, packing up bundles of arts and crafts, and wiping clean what remains of her classwork on the whiteboard.

Last year’s 100K in 30 Days event raised €1.7 million for Breast Cancer Ireland.

Passionate about health and fitness, one of the biggest returns to “normality” for Rachael Ann has been the opportunity to get out running again, something she describes as an “incredible release”.

She was asked to be an ambassador for 100K in 30 Days by Co Louth couple Niall Carroll and Cara McAdam who started the event.

Rachael-Ann remembers how her own diagnosis came at a time when she believed she was at the healthiest and fittest point in her life.

“I found the lump in August 2020. At the time, I was doing a personal training course. In my head, I was the fittest and healthiest I’d ever been in my life. At first I thought it was muscular but as time went on I was like, ‘No, this is getting bigger. This shouldn’t be here’.”

It was Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 2020 that gave Rachael Ann the push to speak with her GP, deciding then to go private such was the urgency, and being fast-tracked to Beaumont Hospital where she underwent an immediate MRI, ultrasound and biopsy.

While free breast checks are offered to women over the age of 50 years, regardless of potential risk or prior family history, they are not always offered to women under that age.

It’s something Rachael Ann would like to see changed, telling the Celt an aunt on her mum’s side and her paternal granny both contracted cancer, the latter dying at a young age.

“They told me if you’re under the age of 35 you’re automatically deemed non-urgent, regardless of anything, and family history doesn’t come into it. If it did, that probably would have meant I’d have been seen sooner. We all know family history is huge factor.”

Rachael Ann says her illness journey is marked by the people she has met along the way, many of them other young women either about to undergo treatment or who have successfully battled through illness. She spares a thought too for those who have sadly not made it.

“I’ve met girls along the way, many who’ve reached out to me, all over Ireland and even abroad, similar ages, all going through the same thing as I did. It’s so disappointing to feel you’re essentially ignored because you’re young. It doesn’t matter how fit and healthy you feel or what age you are, cancer doesn’t care about that.”

She says: “I’ve had the opportunity to make so many amazing friends [through talking about her cancer treatment story].

“It’s all happened for a reason, and I now feel and understand that I’m supposed to do more with my own story. More and more people at a younger age are being diagnosed with seriously aggressive cancers. So there needs to be a major rethink.”