CUTTING a stylish figure, rocking ruby red lipstick and a red-trimmed Fedora, Elaine Tierney, aged 52, is fearless.
“I used to be brunette, but I’m getting to like being blonde,” says Elaine, who is full of joie de vivre, surveying her pixie crop blonde hair in the mirror beside the table where we sit for a chat.
What else does she like?
“Well, I have one boob less saggy and slightly higher than the other now. That’s OK too!”
Elaine, who is from Waterford, has lived in Riverstick, Cork, for 29 years.
This ebullient lady definitely stands out from the crowd but, when she was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) — the most common form of breast cancer — it was a life changer for her and her husband, Christian.
“I love life,” she says.
“I love my husband, my family, my friends, my garden and my three dogs. Life is good. I wasn’t ready to go anywhere.”
Less than 18 months ago, life wasn’t so good for Elaine when she discovered a lump in her breast, the night before travelling on holiday to Spain in April, 2018, with Christian.
“I had a bad feeling about it straightaway,” she says.
“My mother died of ovarian cancer 20 years ago when I was 32, so I examined my breasts regularly as I knew there can be a link.
“The shower is always a good place to do this when you are wet and slippery. The lump was near my nipple.”
Shell-shocked, and very worried, Elaine didn’t tell her husband about her devastating discovery.
“I didn’t want to ruin his holiday, he needed the break and I didn’t really want to talk about it,” she says.
“But I was sick with apprehension and I emailed my GP two days later, not wanting to waste any time to get a referral.
“When I got back home, the doctor confirmed there was a lump and I then waited on that referral appointment to the Breast Clinic in CUH.”
Elaine was full of trepidation prior to the appointment but didn’t want to make too much of it.
“I told Chris to drop me at the door and I’d call him after. Not the smartest move ever, it turned out…
“At the clinic I had a physical exam, mammograms, ultrasound and then two core biopsies which were very frightening,” says Elaine.
It was subsequently confirmed a week later that she had a 14mm malignant tumour.
She was terrified, “I wondered was my future to be the same as my mother’s?”
But she was also fortunate,
“I caught my cancer early and it was treatable.”.
“Chris was so supportive,” adds Elaine.
“He minded me, cooked for me and he was there for me 24/7. I felt huge guilt about the impact my cancer had on him and on what it might mean in the future. Chris has no family here, he’s German and his one sibling lives in the States.
“Actually, I worried about the effects my illness would have on all my family. I wanted to protect the people I loved and who loved me.”
She was also protected and supported in Cork ARC Cancer Support House, where she availed of the comfort, support, solace and one-to-one counselling they provide.
“I knew about it and I had previously supported ARC House,” says Elaine.
“But I never imagined I’d use it. Director, Ellen Joyce, was actually one of my mother’s nurses back then. One day I just went in saying, ‘I’m about to start chemotherapy’. Straight away I was welcomed, supported, informed, heard and listened to in a calm, warm, and oh-so-human environment during what was a very scary, anxious time.
“I continued counselling until April this year. I could and did say everything on my mind. Nobody judges you,” says Elaine.
“In ARC I didn’t have to protect the listener, to take their feelings into consideration and maybe self-censor. Often we don’t articulate what we’re really feeling in case we upset or distress the ones we love.
“At ARC House you can ask all the questions, including the stupid ones. All this is new, you’re blundering your way through it and out the other side. ARC House gives you the tools to navigate forward.”
When Elaine was placed under the care of Professor Mark Corrigan, six days after her biopsies and her mammogram, her treatment plan was confirmed.
“That involved having a lumpectomy and the removal of four lymph nodes, one of which was affected.
“The type of breast cancer I had was a hormone sensitive cancer where female hormones encourage growth. The cells in this type of breast cancer have receptors that allow them to use the female hormones to grow.”
Elaine had to undergo treatment.
“I had to have chemotherapy— which I opted for in the Bons. I was absolutely terrified.
“After the initial assessment, waiting for diagnosis, I was out of my mind, having constant panic attacks, I didn’t sleep or eat. I kept thinking what happened to my beautiful mum would happen to me.”
But her care-givers were by her side every step of the way, reassuring Elaine that things would be fine.
“After diagnosis, both Professor Corrigan and Cancer Liaison Nurse Evelyn Farrissey were truly wonderful, calmly reassuring me that my outcomes would be good and my prognosis positive, that I had caught this early.” says Elaine.
Christian was chief cook and bottle washer.
“He filled the freezer with chemo-fighting recipes for me from the Domini Kemp cookbook that a friend had gifted me and, you know what, they tasted great!”
Her husband went the whole nine yards.
“Chris was a tower of strength, the absolute personification of love for me. I felt wrapped in his loving care. I’m very lucky and very grateful.”
Elaine didn’t want him watching her getting the chemotherapy treatment, while it was doing its work and given the severe side effects it could have on the patient.
“I didn’t want Chris there seeing me getting hooked up and all that. I knew he’d find it upsetting, feeling powerless. It was one thing I could take away from him. It was a case of just doing it and getting it over and done with.
“The first and second chemotherapy sessions were OK, the third and fourth were pretty tough. And I only had four, some people have so many more.
“My sister, Hilary, and brothers Garreth and Paul were wonderful, travelling from Dublin and Waterford to sit with me in the day ward, chatting and distracting me. It actually allowed us connect in a very loving way which has been great.”
Somebody else kept a careful watchful eye over Elaine.
“I had sought two second opinions about the necessity of having chemotherapy, from Professor Crown in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin and from Dr Conleth Murphy in the Bons. When we met Dr Murphy for the first time, he gave us an hour, answered all our questions, talked about current and future treatments, research and more. At the end I said, ‘I want you to be my oncologist’. I knew with him overseeing my treatment, I’d be in expert, caring hands.”
She took things into her own hands.
“I shaved off my hair,” says Elaine. “I didn’t want to see it fall out. So I took it off first. Actually, I created a photo album of the hair journey over nine months on my phone to show myself it was just a temporary thing. I was a brunette. Now I’m a blonde.
“I started acupuncture too (with Dr Fiona Barry), it helps alleviate the effects like nausea and more.
“In my case, I mainly experienced muscle weakness and deep fatigue and I was very unsteady, which upset me. I was quite fragile. Everything was tough but it was do-able.”
Then the 15 radiotherapy treatment sessions over three weeks kicked in.
“Dr Aileen Flavin in CUH was just wonderful, kind and calm and a standout expert in her field.
“And every single member of staff I came into contact with in CUH Radiotherapy was the same — gentle, professional and kind. I cannot say enough good things about them.”
ARC House was phenomenal too.
“During that six weeks after surgery, waiting for chemo to start, was when I first contacted ARC, they’ve helped me hugely to cope and deal with the emotional fallout of diagnosis and treatment.
“Fiona, one of the counsellors and also a specialist breast cancer nurse, is a godsend. You can avail of the support, skill and medical knowledge at ARC House and it’s free. Your mortality has waved a very big flag in your face. And that’s scary,” says Elaine.
She wanted to live, laugh, and love for the rest of her life.
“Previous to my diagnosis, coming up to my 50th, I did a health overhaul. I badly needed it, making some big health decisions, changing my diet and lifestyle, including more exercise.”
Her fitter, slimmer body was a blessing in disguise.
“Because my breasts were smaller; I found my lump sooner than I might have. Early detection is vital for a positive outcome. That is one message I really want to get across to all women out there and the men who love them. It is vitally important to be vigilant, learn how to self-examine and then act quickly if you find anything.”
She was willing to go to any lengths to live the life she loved so much.
“Because of my mother’s ovarian cancer history, I was BRCA tested, thankfully that was negative but I was advised to have my ovaries removed,” says Elaine. “I had them removed in April, which means I now have minimal hormone production and of course the consequences that brings, like menopause and bone density issues and lots more fun stuff.”
But the future is bright.
“You know, I’ve met women who are cancer free 13 years, 17 years and longer,” says Elaine. “I personally know a woman who at 33 had both breasts removed. She’s still here at 83, no recurrence. We don’t hear often enough about the women who have never had to experience cancer again and there are lots of them.
“We have to wrap hope around the fear. Hope is a strong and a powerful antidote to fear.”
Since her cancer diagnosis, Elaine is grateful for all the good people in her life.
“I was shown great kindness and an incredible amount of love,” she says. “That is humbling.”
Her priorities have changed.
“If you have a roof over your head and enough to eat, everything else is just a bonus,” says Elaine.
She’s taking time to smell the roses.
“Chris and I work together in our branding and communications design business, Kunnert & Tierney. But I’m only going to be working part-time from now on.
“I’ll be taking drugs forever and I feel crappy sometimes but that’s a whole lot better than the alternative.”
Elaine knows what’s important to her.
“All that matters is that we love and are loved.”
She’ll always remember the special relationship she had with ARC House when fear, uncertainty and vulnerability engulfed her.
“It should be the first port of call for anyone with a cancer diagnosis, don’t think about calling in, just do it.” says Elaine.
“ARC is a 360 degree warm embrace from people who understand and show you that you are not alone, that you are seen and understood and cared for.”