Search icon


12th Oct 2016

What It’s Like… To Learn You Have Breast Cancer

Sive O'Brien

We caught up with mum Ciara Cassidy who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 35:

“At the time, I was separated with a young son aged five who had just started school, and I was in full-time employment.

I previously had a benign lump and was in a screening programme with St James Hospital. I had an annual MRI that showed up a very slight change from the previous MRI a year earlier. This could have been down to movement in the tunnel during the exam, so I was sent for a mammogram which showed up as clear. It was agreed I would have the MRI repeated in 3 months. Meanwhile, I had an appointment with Dr Liz Connolly, a Consultant Breast Surgeon for a physical examination. About three minutes into the examination she must have become aware of something and sent me straight down to ultrasound for a biopsy. The ultrasound showed up nothing; everything looked perfect, the  sonographer even rang the surgeon to tell her nothing was showing up. I was sent back to the surgeon who marked the spot with a marker and returned for the biopsy.

Because of this, I was fairly confident that everything was okay. I didn’t for a second think that a human hand could pick up what a mammogram, MRI, and ultrasound couldn’t. It later transpired I had stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma. It is one of the most difficult to diagnose breast cancers as it forms in lines in the milk ducts rather than as a lump, and the survival rate for this type of cancer is pretty low due to late diagnosis. So really, any change at all, no matter how small should always be checked out. If it is enough to make you stop and think it, it is enough to be followed up. I think of Ms Connolly regularly, and how lucky I was to have seen her that day.

Once the initial shock subsided, I went straight into practical mode. They were optimistic that I was at a very early stage and that there was a possibility it hadn’t gone into my lymph nodes. I was tested to see if it had spread. Looking back it feels like the diagnostic process is a step-by-step process that helps you absorb what’s happening bit-by-bit.

First step: you have breast cancer with hope it has not gone into the lymph nodes. Second step: testing the lymph nodes, so diagnosis of the exact situation you are facing is gradual, which I think helped make it easier to come to terms with.

When I was called back in, I knew the news was not good.

From the day I found out I had cancer, my mind was made up, and it was not for changing. My decision automatically was a double mastectomy. To me, it was a no brainer. The main reasons for this were that I had been living with cancer in my left breast unbeknown to me.

MRI’s, Ultrasound, mammograms didn’t find it, and I know in my heart I would never have a moment’s peace wondering what might be happening with the right breast. I wanted it gone and some peace of mind. I have a beautiful young son (who was five-years-old at the time), and I wanted to eliminate as much risk as possible, and give myself the best chance I could to watch him growing up.

Hysterectomy was always on my journey’s road map, and the oophorectomy came into the plan shortly before surgery. It wasn’t a big decision for me really, but rather another step to help increase my chances and life expectancy. The two body parts go hand-in-hand, so they may as well both be taken out. They were both operated on at the same time. I was shocked at how quickly I was out of hospital. I think I was out within two days and recovery was pretty easy.

Finally, my date for reconstruction arrived. As it is such a long surgery, it was hard to get theatre time available. But the day finally arrived, the day that in my head marked the end of the whole process. Coincidentally it was just four weeks from the date of the Hysterectomy and oophorectomy. I had been through a lot.

Would I do it again, yes probably. However the end goal of the double reconstruction doesn’t live up to everything I expected it to be. With surgery, come scars and disfigurement, as well as the let-down that things can’t go back to the way they were before. Scars will fade, but will still be there. But on the other hand, would I want my old scar free breasts back, absolutely not.

Life doesn’t go back to normal, and my body won’t go back to ‘normal’ but I’m alive, and I’m feeling better than I have done in years. I’m slowly accepting my new body image and trying to remember that every scar tells a tale – I have lots of stories! Nobody likes perfection, and I am a stronger person for it. I am learning to wear my scars and not let them hold me back.

And, most importantly I had some laughs along the way, mainly at myself and my ‘chemo brain.’ I also got to spend ten months at home with my son and was lucky that I could work remotely from home on projects when I was feeling well enough to do so.

My advice for someone going through the same thing is: 

If you have any worries or concerns, please see your GP as quickly as you can. I cannot urge you strongly enough to get checked out as soon as you possibly can. The earlier you catch this disease, the less chance there is of it entering lymph nodes, which means, the less chance of needing chemo, and the higher your survival rate.

There is no age limit on cancer, it effects all ages, so it is never too soon or too late to be comfortable and familiar with your breasts.

But most importantly act immediately on anything at all you are concerned about.”

This article is brought to you by Centra’s Live Well Campaign supporting the Irish Cancer Society’s Action Breast Cancer.

Centra’s Live Well seminars will take place in Cork and Galway on the 15 October at 10am. On this date, Centra will also be hosting over 200 pink walks across the country encouraging healthy living as well as raising much-needed funds. To register head over to

You can also support the Irish Cancer Society’s Paint it Pink campaign by holding a pink coffee morning during October. For more information see