Orla Byrne hails from Bohernabreena, in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Spend time with her and you come away feeling there is real substance beneath her winning grin. Since 2017, however, Orla has been physically and emotionally challenged, learning to live with Stage Four Inflammatory Breast Cancer.
In the lead up to Christmas 2016, Orla, then 37 years of age, having noticed that her right breast looked bigger in comparison to her left breast, went to her GP. “It simply looked different to what normal was for me,” she says. With the new year underway and with a referral from her GP, on January 3rd, 2017, Orla went to the Breast Care Centre at the Beacon Hospital. Here she had a triple assessment, comprising a mammogram, an ultrasound and six biopsies. At this point, having watched her right breast become alarmingly bigger day by day over the Christmas holidays, Orla was in excruciating pain, yet she had told no one. Three days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and after a week of further investigative tests she received the heartbreaking news that she had Stage 4 Inflammatory Breast Cancer – it had spread from her right breast to her liver, lymph nodes and bone. Surrounded by her mother and three sisters in the consultant’s room, Orla recalls, “you could have heard a pin drop, we were all so deeply, deeply shocked.
Orla’s treatment began with six months of aggressive chemotherapy, and although it was gruelling, challenging her in ways she had never thought possible, she responded well to the treatment. As her cancer is fuelled by oestrogen, at the beginning of her diagnosis Orla was put into medically-induced menopause, which remains ongoing. The induced menopause brought about many personal challenges for Orla, including coming to terms with the reality that she is unable to have children of her own.
In October 2019, Orla suffered a recurrence in her right breast, in that the tumour had started to grow again. The decision was taken for her to undergo surgery, resulting in a mastectomy of the right breast and removal of underarm lymph nodes. Earlier this year, Orla also underwent five weeks of radiotherapy. While the recurrence was upsetting for her, the important message is that despite the tumour starting to grow again the medical team were able to help her. Such treatment is a testament to the importance of research and development to turn metastatic breast cancer into a long term illness. In 2017, due to the size of the tumour and aggressive stage of the cancer – and because the medical team deemed it more effective to treat with chemotherapy and drugs in order to try to shrink it – surgery wasn’t an option for Orla.
Learning to live daily with a metastatic illness is very challenging. For Orla, 2017 and 2018 were two hard years of operating in a medical bubble and living a very sheltered existence that revolved around the hospital, family and close friends. “The medical team becomes an extension of the family,” she notes. In 2019, while her day-to-day living was improving, Orla found the emotional fallout of the previous years catching up on her. She credits “self-awareness of herself” in taking the time to do the personal work required. Her therapy sessions are now a positive ongoing part of her life. “Ultimately, we all have to live with our thoughts and feelings 24/7,” Orla advises, “and so it’s only natural to want to work on yourself in order to navigate your way through the gauntlet of emotions that comes from living with Stage 4 Breast Cancer.”
Alongside her family and friends, Orla has been taking part in the Great Pink Run since her diagnosis in 2017. “The Great Pink Run is a wonderful occasion for my family and friends to come together to celebrate our strength and unity,” she confirms. “I could not get through what at times is really a living nightmare without the support and kindness of my loved ones. I am so mindful how difficult and upsetting these past years have been for them. In fact, at times I think it is harder for my mother, my sisters, extended family and friends to have to watch me ride this crazy rollercoaster that is breast cancer.”
Orla’s treatment is working well but it remains ongoing. The future is by no means certain, but she is determined to try to make the best of each day as it comes. She has no intention of leaving this universe anytime soon. “We are truly stronger than we know,” asserts Orla. “There is another layer of strength in all of us when faced with the terrifying challenge that is cancer. Allow your strength to guide you and do what feels right for you.