A Castletownbere mum-of-two who survived a battle with breast cancer says women should regularly examine themselves, writes Emma Connolly
Isabel O’Donovan – of the well-known Issie’s Handmade Chocolate – was diagnosed with breast cancer at 35 – a time when she felt like she was in her best health ever.
Speaking during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month she said: ‘I found a teeny, tiny lump doing a regular self-check and really thought it was nothing but I got it checked and following a mammogram and biopsies, it was quickly confirmed it was cancer.’
At the time, back in 2011, Isabel’s business in Castletownbere was in its infancy and her boys, Tom and Josh, were aged just six and three.
Eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day in Ireland, but this wasn’t what Isabel had expected or planned.
‘It was an horrific shock – I was fit, strong and lean – in the best health of my life. The initial shock was probably the hardest to deal with and then things moved quite quickly.
‘My diagnosis was in July and I had surgery – a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction – in September.’
October saw the start of six months of gruelling chemotherapy every three weeks which saw her lose her hair and left her generally fatigued.
The fact that she lived a four-hour round trip from remote Castletownbere to CUH didn’t help, but she ‘soldiered on.’
‘You just keep focussing on what’s next. It’s a bit like doing a course in college; it had to be done whether I liked it or not.’
Six weeks of radiotherapy started in March which required Isabel to attend CUH every day with the exception of Saturday and Sunday.
And after all that she was required to continue with hormone therapy – essentially she got every possible treatment she could, she said.
In all her treatment ran from July 2011 until December 2012.
‘I did not realise how long it would go on for,’ she explained. ‘It really became my whole life. In the beginning you think you can get on with other things, but you can’t. It takes a whole chunk out of your life that you hadn’t planned for.’
During this time Isabel bought a horse Sammy.
‘I bought her when I was diagnosed in 2011, to get me through it,’ Issie recalled.
‘She’s great. I still ride her out whenever I can. I love horses. She helped me so much when I was going through treatment. I used to ride her out almost every day and she looked after me during chemotherapy,’ she said.
‘I finished my treatment just coming up to Christmas, and it was a lovely thing to celebrate being cancer-free.’
Fortunately Isabel has stayed that way since but she admits it’s never too far from her mind.
She goes for twice-yearly full health checks with an annual mammogram.
Personally, she feels it was just bad luck she got the disease, as at the time of her diagnosis she says she was lean, strong and fit spending time in the gym daily.
‘I think if you’re going to get cancer, you’re going to get it. Although perhaps the fact that I was strong made my recovery easier.’
However, she does feel that perhaps stress played a role in her illness.
‘I was a workaholic before – focussed on getting ahead. But when you’re lying in a hospital bed, you realise all the money in the world is not going to help you. It’s about family and friends.
‘Something like this does help you reprioritise your life; you do get a reality check,’ she said. ‘It stopped me in my tracks.’
Isabel did keep her shop, Issie’s Handmade Chocolate, open one day a week during her illness – it helped get her out of the house, and now she runs it as a seasonal business taking the winter off and outsourcing production.
‘I had to reassess my life and make changes; so some positives have come out of this.’
Her boys are now aged 13 and 10 and she noted that they were so young at the time she was battling cancer, that a lot went over their heads.
Her husband Dave is a secondary school teacher in Bantry and he was a great support, she added.
Having gone through such a life changing experience and coming out the other side, Isabel now helps others in the same situation and fundraises for the Irish Cancer Society.
But her number one word of advice to all women is to regularly examine themselves and if they come across a lump ‘not to assume it’s nothing – if it is, that’s great, but don’t take the chance.’