Orla Byrne was just 42 years of age when she died from breast cancer in November 2021. Orla was an Outreach Coordinator with Breast Cancer Ireland and a much-loved colleague and friend. She was 37 when, 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 said.
With a referral from her GP, on January 3rd, 2017, Orla went to the Breast Care Centre at the Beacon Hospital. There she had a triple assessment, comprising a mammogram, an ultrasound and six biopsies. Three days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and after a week of further investigative tests she received the heart-breaking 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 recalled, “you could have heard a pin drop, we were all so deeply, deeply shocked.”
And so Orla’s treatment and initial recovery began. Orla started on a new clinical trial drug that helped enormously in keeping the known cancer cells at bay. She took on the role of Education & Outreach Coordinator in the hope that she could educate young women and girls about the importance of understanding good breast health.
In October 2019 however, 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. Learning to live daily with a metastatic illness was very challenging but Orla bore it with immense courage.
Throughout the years of her illness, Orla spoke about the emotional fallout. She credited “self-awareness of herself” in taking the time to do the personal work required. Her therapy sessions were a positive part of her life in her remaining years. “Ultimately, we all have to live with our thoughts and feelings 24/7,” Orla advised, “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 took part in the Great Pink Run every year since her diagnosis. “The Great Pink Run is a wonderful occasion for my family and friends to come together to celebrate our strength and unity,” she said just months before she died. “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.”
Unfortunately in mid 2021, Orla’s cancer was spreading and this time it had metastasized to her brain.
Orla was determined to try to make the best of each and every day. “We are truly stronger than we know,” she asserted on many occasions. “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.”
We will miss you forever Orla. RIP.