Civil Servant Maria McCracken lives with her husband Alan in Bangor and has two grown up children, Rachel and Daniel. Maria’s breast cancer was detected by Action Cancer’s breast screening programme in 2015. Now cancer free, Maria is encouraging other women to avail of Action Cancer’s life saving service.
Maria had been completely unaware of Action Cancer’s breast screening service until one day her husband’s cousin, Tina, brought it up in a chance conversation. They were both 43 at the time (there is a month between them) and they both decided it would be a good idea to get checked out.
“I was nervous going for my first ever mammogram at Action Cancer House, I found it slightly uncomfortable but not painful. It took just a matter of minutes. It was over very quickly and the staff were really lovely.”
Maria received a letter a few weeks later stating that there was no cause for concern. Action Cancer recalls ladies every 2 years for screening and Maria attended for a second time, aged 45- again Maria was told that her results were clear. It was following her third visit, however aged 47 in August 2015 that Maria received a different letter from the charity- the screening had detected something that required follow up at the hospital.
Maria’s appointment was at the Ulster Hospital on 1st September.
“I went on my own, despite my husband, sister and sister-in-law all offering to accompany me. If I were to receive bad news, I wanted to be the one to break it to them in my own words.”
The consultant conducted a physical examination but nothing could be found. Maria then had a mammogram and ultrasound followed by biopsies and blood tests. She then went to meet her consultant and was told they had found a tumour in her left breast.
“I waited to tell kids the next day after my diagnosis. I went to work the next day too and just got on with things. I just wanted to keep everything as normal as I could. I told my boss, colleagues and my sister, but left it few more days before telling mum and dad as I knew it would be so difficult for them.”
Maria was scheduled for surgery by the end of the month and had an operation to remove the tumour plus margins on 30th September 2015. Maria also had her sentinel node tested for any signs of cancer.
“Surgery was ok. Quite sore but manageable. As a family I think we heal quite well. I had accepted the diagnosis and just tried to get on with it. My attitude was that I didn’t want to go to bed and feel sorry for myself, because then I might not get up to do anything. I would rest on the settee and took it easy. My husband and kids and all those around me stepped up and looked after me.”
Maria received the results of her surgery that October. One of her nodes was infected out of the seven. She had a further operation on the 21st November to take away the other six. Thankfully, they came back clear. The surgeon also took away margins around the tumour as there was a risk they had found some cancer cells in the margins. Maria was told they would keep going until they got a clear margin.
“Waiting for the results was incredibly tough. At the end of December, I went for a scan and I was told, luckily the cancer hadn’t spread.”
Maria was then to receive a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to ensure all traces of cancer were removed.
“Christmas was a bit surreal for me. I got my pic line in on Christmas Eve to start my chemotherapy first. Then radiotherapy started on 6th January -19 weeks up until 26th April. I had two different types of chemotherapy and each type has different side effects. I wished I’d been given a check list of how you might feel. I passed my own experiences onto other people receiving treatment that were a bit behind me.
During my first chemotherapy, my head was so sore I couldn’t even put my head on a pillow. I lost a week of my life. Each time I had the chemo I felt nauseous, even the smell of food turned me. My mouth was very woolly – a weird sensation. I didn’t get mouth ulcers, but I did have hair loss.”
Like many people who go through chemotherapy treatment, Maria’s hair started to fall out on day 19. Maria decided to take control of the situation got her hair cut to about shoulder length and then cut it up into a shorter pixie cut – cutting it in stages to adjust to the change she was experiencing.
“Thankfully though, I didn’t look sick considering what I was going through.”
Maria and Alan celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary at the hospital with her 5th session of chemotherapy. Maria’s experience with her second type of chemotherapy was worse than the first. It was tough on her body, affecting her muscles and bones and subsequently she lost about a stone in weight.
“Chemotherapy is horrible – I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
For Maria, after treatment had ended, getting back to normality and trying to recover was important.
“Each day I feel like I am getting more energy gradually. I am gaining strength slowly and compared to me needing assistance to walk up hills, I can now drive again and regain my independence and I have been able to return to work.”
Maria has an important message for Northern Ireland women aged 40 to 49 and 70+.
“Go and get a mammogram. Let the experts tell you are ok. I was examining myself and thought I was fine. An Action Cancer mammogram could save your life – it saved mine.
I was diagnosed at 47 so by time NHS screening kicked in, it could have been too late for me. Self -examination is great if you can detect it, but screening can pick up things that self-examination can’t. I was told that I never would have found the cancer in myself that Action Cancer detected in my breast.”
If you are aged 40 to 49 or 70+ book your free breast screening online at www.actioncancer.org or by calling 028 9080 3344.