Linda Burgess

linda-burgess A Dublin woman says her commitment to checking her breasts regularly meant that when she did get cancer, its effects were minimised. Linda Burgess (39), of Donaghmede, was just a teenager when her family doctor stressed the importance of, and showed her how to, check her breasts. “I was about 17 and a little embarrassed at the time but now I’m really glad he made me vigilant,” she says. “Of course it was silly to be embarrassed.” When Linda finished school she worked in various jobs.  Then, when she was 21, her daughter Joanne was born, and four years later her son Sam arrived. Linda says it’s sometimes tough but always rewarding being a single parent. “The only mistake I never made, was getting married,” she quips before chuckling. She is clearly dedicated to her children and is really proud of both of them. When she was 30 years old Linda took a brave step and went to college to do social studies. Consequently, for the past eight years she has been working as a special needs assistant (SNA). “I love the work, but the cut-backs are shocking.  The most recent change is giving children “access” to a SNA instead of allocating one each. Now you can have five children with special needs in a classroom with only one SNA.” Five years ago such a scenario would have been almost unimaginable. Just as well, as Linda had a totally different problem to worry about – a discharge from her left breast. She says she went to a doctor – not her usual one – and was told the discharge was “probably” due to hormonal factors and that she was “too young” to get cancer. “I didn’t think that word ‘probably’ was good enough,” she says. “If there was any doubt, which there was, then it should have been taken further – but it wasn’t.” Sensibly Linda continued to monitor herself, and when two weeks later she felt a small lump in the same breast she told the nurses at the Well Woman clinic when, soon after, she went for a scheduled smear test. “They didn’t say it was nothing to worry about; instead they referred me to the breast clinic at Beaumont Hospital.” Linda was seen by consultant surgeon Professor Arnold, Hill, who sent Linda for a mammogram and an ultrasound. He then asked her to return that afternoon for a needle biopsy. She was caught off-guard. “I thought I’d be in and out in a jiffy so I hadn’t told anyone about this except a woman at work.  I didn’t want to worry my mother or scare my children. But when Professor Hill asked me to come back I had to break it to my mum so she could collect the kids from school.” By now Linda knew she had a tumour (abnormal tissue) but she didn’t know if it was malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Shortly after she got the news that she had early stage, estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. In simple terms this meant that the hormone estrogen supported the growth of her tumour. Linda says she suspects she handled the diagnosis calmly because Professor Hill was so reassuring and empathetic. “He pointed out all the positive aspects of my situation, especially the fact that I had caught it so early. There was nothing else I could do, so I left it in his hands.” Within a week Linda had had a lumpectomy; she was only in hospital for one night. Some lymph nodes near the tumour were also removed to check if the cancer had spread. Fortunately it hadn’t so she didn’t need a mastectomy. “I really didn’t care if I lost a breast,” says Linda. “My kids were the main thing – I wanted to be around for them – to see them grow up. ” Following her surgery at Beaumont, Linda had radiotherapy at St Luke’s Hospital, Rathgar, every weekday for nearly seven weeks. (She was offered hormone treatment but declined as she felt that in her particular case it would not benefit her.) “I only took a week off for my surgery. When I was having the radiation I’d go to work in the morning and to St Luke’s in the afternoon, then back to school to supervise the homework club. Keeping busy was my way of distancing myself.” She says while her children seemed to take her illness lightly at first, it emerged they both had fears. “A friend’s mother had recently died of cancer so that made Joanne very nervous,” says Linda. “She was attending the same secondary school where I was working, so my colleagues kept and eye on her and told me when she appeared to be quiet and tearful. I reassured her by telling her how lucky I was to have caught the cancer early.” Linda says Sam also struggled. “During my radiotherapy he started having nightmares. It turned out he didn’t really understand how the treatment worked so I brought him to St Luke’s and the nurses showed him around. Because of the lasers he thought it was like Star Wars!” Linda says it is essential to be absolutely honest with children. “My kids always knew they could ask me anything they liked about the situation.” She says her ordeal was made much easier by the love and support of her mother Patricia Burgess. “She was by my side all the way.” Linda also advises all women especially younger women to get serious about checking their breasts every month at around the same time so they know what is normal for them and can then easily detect any changes. Professor Hill, who treated Linda says, “We know from studies that breast cancer, if detected early, has a much more positive survival outcome.” Linda says she is totally behind the Be Breast Aware: Have a Feel Day campaign which was launched recently by Aviva Health Insurance and Breast Cancer Ireland. She was delighted too by the launch of a new app called Breast Aware, which shows women how to perform a self-breast examination; the app follows up with a discreet monthly reminder to them to check their breasts. As to the claim by the doctor that young women don’t get breast cancer Linda says; “Look at me. I was only 33 year old and I got it. But because I do always check my breasts, six years down the line I am perfectly healthy.” By Joy Orpen Breast Cancer Ireland: see www.breastcancerireland.com Download the free Breast Aware iPhone app from iTunes or Aviva Facebook page (www.facebook.com/avivaireland)