For Fionnuala MacLean, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time to be grateful.
The 46-year-old breast cancer survivor says it’s also a time to remind women about the importance of being proactive when it comes to their health.
“I’m thankful to be alive,” she said. “Not everyone has a family history like I do, but everyone should remember that early detection is the key to survival. Be diligent; be your own best advocate because nobody else will do it for you.”
Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in Canada.
The Canadian Cancer Society estimates 22,700 women in Canada will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 5,100 women will die from the disease in 2012.
MacLean always knew she was at risk of developing breast cancer.
Her mother – now a 33-year survivor – was diagnosed with the disease at age 44.
Her aunt died of breast cancer at age 52.
MacLean began having routine mammograms when she was 31.
“They were surprised to see me coming every year because I was so young,” she said. “They talk about a high risk for cancer being that you have fibrous breasts, which mine were, so the breast self-examine thing didn’t work for me because I didn’t know what was lumps and bumps, what was cysts, what was normal, so I really pushed. I said, ‘I still want to keep coming back here because you guys are trained for this, I’m not; you guys will discover it, if ever,’ and they did.”
MacLean went to a morning mammogram appointment in December 2008.
That day, she got called back for a biopsy appointment in the afternoon.
MacLean went to see her doctor for the results five days later.
“My doctor – who’s been my doctor for about 20 years – walked into the examination room and just said to me, ‘You have breast cancer’ and I said, ‘I know,’” she said. “It was totally surreal. I’d really been waiting, since I started having the mammograms, for somebody to say that. So to me, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, but it was still devastating and a huge shock.”
MacLean was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer at age 42.
She had a lumpectomy in January 2009 and underwent chemotherapy from March until June and radiation in August, before returning to work in November.
MacLean said the experience was emotionally, physically and financially draining.
But the situation could have been less hopeful had it not been for early detection, she added.
“I was diagnosed in December, I had surgery in January, chemotherapy in March, radiation in August and was back to work in November,” MacLean said. “Let’s face it, it was a bump in the road for me. That’s the way I look at it because to do anything else, you’re just going to spiral, you can’t let it get a hold of you.”
MacLean said her advice for women when it comes to breast cancer is simple.
“When this happened to me, I advised all of my girlfriends to go get a mammogram. The doctors said to most of them that they were too young because they were in their 40s and in Canada, the watershed is kind of 50 years old,” she said. “I said to my friends, ‘Push anyway, what do you got to lose? If there is no problem then fine, at least you’ve had that baseline mammogram and if there is a problem, then they’ll keep an eye on you.’ Keep on top of your doctors and trust your gut.”
MacLean, who has been participating in the annual Shoppers Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers benefiting The Campbell Family Institute at the Princess Margaret Hospital since 2004, said she feels “obligated” to assist as much as she can in helping to find a cure for breast and gynecologic cancers.
She became involved with the September walkathon as a way to honour her family members who had been touched by cancer.
“The phrase that our team had on our fundraising material this year was, ‘We’re walking because we can’t walk away,’” said MacLean, who has helped raise about $30,000 for the cause over the years. “I think October shouldn’t just be Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it should be all women’s cancers.
It’s important to remember that some of the symptoms (for other women’s cancers) are generic and they don’t really come to the fore until they’re quite advanced, so it’s so important for women to speak up when they feel something isn’t right inside. We need to continue the fight against breast and all women’s cancers, so even more lives can be saved along the way.”
For more information on breast cancer, gynecologic cancers or how you can help in the fight against women’s cancers, visit www.endcancer.ca.