'Check your breasts - I can't stress it enough'
At just 40 it had never crossed Meath native Yvonne Alderdice's mind that she could get cancer but now she's urging women of all ages to know their bodies
CO MEATH mum-of-three Yvonne Alderdice was just 40 years old when she was diagnosed with lobular breast cancer in 2017.
A keen swimmer and runner who was training to do two half marathons at the time, the diagnosis came as a huge shock to Yvonne. She was healthier and fitter than ever and was all the more surprised when told the average age for women to be diagnosed with this type of breast cancer was around 60 and post-menopausal.
Yvonne, who lives in Bangor with husband Dave and their three children, Zoe (13), Ross (12) and Ciara (10), knew no-one her age who had received a similar diagnosis. She had the love and support of her family but nevertheless felt isolated and in need of someone going through the same experience to talk to.
There were issues affecting her that she felt only a woman her age would understand but she didn't know where to turn.
Three years on and following a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and daily medication to keep her cancer-triggering hormones at bay, Yvonne has recovered and even run the Dublin marathon.
But when she heard the news that Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38 and that sadly, it had spread, it reminded her how lonely she had felt herself during her cancer journey.
That's why Yvonne is backing Cancer Focus NI's campaign to raise funds to start up a support group for young women with breast cancer. The charity has launched the awareness and fundraising campaign Support Your Girls to encourage women to organise a girls' night in during October and also to stress the importance of checking your breasts regularly.
Yvonne, who was working as an accountant prior to her diagnosis but is now a classroom assistant for special education needs, says a support group for younger women would be invaluable and that she definitely would have availed of one, had it been there during her illness.
“I have a friend who's only 43 and has cancer but at the time of my diagnosis I didn't know any woman my age who'd been through it,” says Yvonne.
“My dad died of cancer and one of our neighbours died too from it. But there was no-one my age I could talk to or share my worries with. My husband was fantastic. He travels with work but stayed at home for six months while I was having my treatment.
“But still, it's such an isolating experience. If you break a leg, there's always someone else who's broken one too and can talk to you about it. Yet I literally knew no-one as young as me who was going through this.
“I’m doing the best I can now to support my friend who has cancer. My children take great pride in supporting her children in every way they can. They hope that they can make things a little easier on them and ease their fears.
“I think a support group for younger women is such a good idea with all the issues they may have planning a family, getting married or looking after children. Meeting up with women who have come through it gives you hope and it’s great to have a safe place to acknowledge your fears and worries and hopefully have them eased.”
Yvonne first noticed a lump through her sports bra. Not overly concerned, she went to the doctor who also thought there was nothing untoward. After two more visits to the doctor, she was referred to the breast clinic for a mammogram and ultrasound and was told there was nothing to worry about.
A week later, Yvonne was called back in as the consultant wanted to see her again. Following a biopsy, she was given the devastating news that same day; she had lobular breast cancer.
“I couldn't believe it,” she says. “I remember being so annoyed. I was sporty, fit, I ate healthily. There was no history of breast cancer in my family.
“To be honest, it never crossed my mind to check myself. I just happened to notice the lump through my sports bra because I have small breasts. I was 40 and yet the average age for getting this type of breast cancer is around 60. I would really urge women of all age to check themselves regularly. Know your body. I can't stress that enough.”
With her treatment plan in place, Yvonne had to break the news to her children. She told them the doctors were going to do everything they could to remove the cancer and to ensure it didn't come back. Following a family holiday to France, Yvonne started her treatment.
“Looking back, I was lucky. I didn't need hospitalised going through it. The oncologist was amazing and they all took such good care of me,” she says. “I didn't have a bad time at all. In fact, I sailed through it.”
One year one, however, Yvonne noticed a discharge on her other breast and after a few months, went back to the breast clinic. She had to have more surgery; a milk duct and a benign papilloma removed.
Then, just three months ago, she was called back following a scheduled MRI scan, but again it wasn’t anything sinister. The reality of getting the call to return to the breast clinic was terrifying though.
“You can never stop checking,” she says. “If you don’t start checking now, and become familiar with what to look out for, you won’t know if there is something unusual.
“The younger women start this, the more likely they are to catch it early. If you do get breast cancer, you can recover from it and continue to chase your dreams, maybe in an even more determined way.”
Getting back to fitness has been hugely important for Yvonne. She raised £3,000 for Cancer Focus NI's Family Support service by abseiling down the Europa Hotel and is back running. She says she feels like she's been given a new lease of life and doesn't 'sweat the small stuff' anymore.
But the setting up of a support group for young women impacted by breast cancer is something she's keen to see happen.
“At 60 years of age and 30 years of age, you're at different chapters really,” she says. “A group specifically for young women would help them deal with mastectomies and reconstruction with a different perception to the same thing happening to an older woman.
“A young person might feel the loss of femininity much more than a woman in her 60s. Then there's the issue of fertility too. Also, a younger person will need to be encouraged to be more patient of the recovery than a more mature person, simply because the younger you are, the more energy you are perceived to have.
“It's important to feel safe and secure and having a group supporting you on the journey to full recovery would definitely help.”
:: Not sure how to check your breasts or what to look out for? Cancer Focus NI has a short video to explain what you need to look out for on its website and social media channels. You can find out more about the Support Your Girls campaign and the signs and symptoms on the charity’s website, cancerfocusni.org/girls