Breast cancer: ‘My immediate concern was being able to see my local GAA club in the championship’

Áine Martin was 37 when she noticed a lump in her breast. Her decision to go straight to her doctor proved vital to her treatment

Early one morning in August, 2021, Áine Martin’s “hand was drawn instinctively” to her right breast, where she felt a lump.

She knew it hadn’t been there when she was fitted for a new bra a few weeks previously and, although she was hopeful that it was something minor, she called a friend – a nurse – who had been through breast cancer, and who advised her to get it checked as soon as possible.

She went to her GP two days later.

“My doctor examined the lump and did a full examination of both breasts as well as under my arms and my neck,” says Áine.


“She didn’t find any other area of concern but referred me to the symptomatic breast clinic, saying that if I hadn’t heard in two weeks to give her a call. But I was told by the clinic that I could be waiting for over a month, so I asked my doctor to refer me privately and I got an appointment the following week for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.

“I asked the consultant if he thought I had a cyst, but he said these are usually fluid-filled and the lump felt fairly solid, so he didn’t think so. But he said we should wait for the results of the tests.

“During the biopsy a clip was inserted into the lump so I had to have another mammogram after that to ensure that it was in the right place and then I drove home by myself. Not many people knew at this stage [about the lump] as I didn’t want to worry them. I was due to go back the following week for results, but I knew at that point that it was cancer.”

Unfortunately, the 37-year-old was right in her predictions and when she returned to the hospital in Galway to receive her test results, she was indeed diagnosed with cancer. But because she had presented early, the outcome looked positive.

“My consultant felt that it [the cancer] was confined to the lump and he told me that I was scheduled for an operation that same week to remove the lump and the skin around it, which would be sent off for testing,” she says. “It was a day procedure, so I would go into hospital in the morning and be home in the evening.

“I am secretary of my local GAA club in Roscommon and my immediate concern was whether or not I would be able to go to the first round of the championship that Friday evening. My mother, who was with me for the appointment, was looking at me as if to say ‘cop on’ and the doctor thought I must be in shock, but he said that once I didn’t drive or over-exert myself, I would be able to go to the match.

“So my friend dropped me to the hospital on the Wednesday morning for surgery at 11am and I woke up afterwards at around 2pm. I was told that they were confident that they had got all the cancer and I was discharged into the care of my sister-in-law at 5pm.

“I wanted to know about the possibility of taking a chemo tablet [if treatment was necessary] as I had been offered a new job and was hoping to take it up, but if I was starting on a course of treatment, I might not be able to do it. But he said that we should wait until we got the results before discussing it.

“So I went home – and was at the match two days later, on the Friday evening.”

A fortnight after her operation, the product management associate returned for a follow-up appointment where she learned that clear margins had been achieved around the lump but there was one lymph node showing signs of cancer and because of this, she would need radiology and chemotherapy.

“I met with the oncologist who said that I would be getting eight rounds of chemotherapy over 14 weeks so I would be starting in October and would be finished in mid January,” she says.

“The sessions would take place once every two weeks and I would be getting two different types of chemo drugs – the first four sessions would be a Taxol and the second four sessions would be a combination drug called AC.

“The oncologist said that I would lose my hair and she advised me that given my age [35 at the time] and the fact that I didn’t already have children, it would be a good idea to harvest my eggs. This was free for oncology patients so I was referred to the Sims IVF clinic in Swords and over the course of three weeks I had to inject myself with various hormones two or three times a day, and had to go for scans every second day to see how the eggs were developing.

“After about three weeks, they harvested eight eggs and following this, they successfully froze six. Also, during this time while I was waiting for chemo, I also had to have bone scans, MRI and CT scans to ensure there were no other areas of concern.

“A shadow showed up on a scan of my breast bone and there was a discussion at the time as to whether or not they would do a biopsy as it was in the difficult area, but the oncologist and other specialists felt that, if it was cancerous, treatment would get it and they didn’t want to delay the beginning of chemotherapy.”

The Roscommon woman started chemotherapy on October 7th, 2021 and finished on January 13th, 2022, before going on to start a course of radiotherapy.

“I was extremely lucky with the chemotherapy as I didn’t find it too bad and was able to work during my treatment,” she says.

“I just needed to take my treatment day and the day after off and I could work the other days of the week. I was able to continue to act as secretary for my GAA club and was also still able to get out and about, so I was very fortunate. My only problem was that, because [of] the steroids that I was on during chemo, I wasn’t really sleeping.

“Then I started radiotherapy on February 8th, 2022 and had my last round of 20 sessions of radiotherapy on the 8th of March 2022. This was very hard on the skin and I still have a bit of scar tissue and skin irritation from it. But I am now on Tamoxifen for the next five years – a tablet hormone treatment – and I have regular check-ups, scans etc with my oncologist and the surgeon.”

Around 3,600 women and almost 40 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in this country each year. But while discovering you have the disease is undoubtedly shocking, the earlier it is diagnosed, the better the chance of a positive outcome.

Because she went to her doctor as soon as she noticed something was amiss, Áine is now doing well and says she would encourage anyone else who has any concerns about their health to seek advice as soon as possible, as early detection could make all the difference.

“The best thing you can do if you feel something isn’t right is to get it checked – so go with your gut instinct,” she says. “You are the best person to know if something isn’t right with your body and even if you go to a doctor and it turns out to be nothing to worry about, at least you will have put your mind at ease.

“And although I didn’t do regular breast checks before I found the lump, I did know my body – so I knew when I found that lump that it wasn’t there ten days previously and that something was not right. So I was extremely lucky that I found the lump when I did.”

Symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A change in size or shape of your breast such as one breast becoming larger than the other
  • A change in the skin such as puckering, ridges or dimpling (like orange peel) or redness
  • A change in the direction or shape of your nipple, especially if it sinks into your breast or becomes irregular in shape
  • An unusual discharge (liquid) from one or both of your nipples
  • A change in the skin on or around the nipple such as a rash or flaky or crusted skin
  • Swelling in your breast or armpit or around your collarbone
  • A lump or thickening in your breast
  • Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit
  • Soreness or warmth (inflammatory breast cancer)
  • A red scaly rash on one nipple, which may itch or burn (Paget’s disease of the breast)
  • Breast pain alone is rarely a symptom of breast cancer
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Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories