In Lorraine Fanneran’s mind, cancer was something that happened to other people. That was until last year, when the 38-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Every time you get a lump, there is the fear it could be serious,” she says. “However, it’s usually nothing and I thought this time would be the same.”
It wasn’t the first time she had lumps checked out, but this time was different. Lorraine had stage 0 breast cancer, or pre-cancer, in one breast and it was starting to turn invasive. She had two options – removing the lump or having a mastectomy.
“My boobs are lovely but they’re not that big, so removing the lump would disfigure my breast quite significantly since they needed to clear an area of six centimetres,” she says. “It would have needed reconstruction anyway, and there was always a 30% risk of reoccurrence.
“As the biopsies showed it was pre-cancer, it wouldn’t be confirmed that I had cancer until the tissue was removed and biopsies were completed,” she says.
“Was I getting rid of a perfectly good boob for nothing? To me, with the threat of reoccurrence, it wasn’t worth the risk.”
She opted for a mastectomy and had the surgery with reconstruction in the Galway Bon Secours Hospital last October.
“I looked the exact same,” Lorraine smiles. “If I hadn’t told anyone, who would know?
“They used the muscle from my back to reconstruct and they also inserted a small implant,” she continues. As a result, my back was very sore. I had about six pillows under me while I was healing. I felt much better after three weeks, and after six weeks I was fully recovered.”
The operation also took its toll emotionally, especially when Lorraine came home to her two small children – Sofia (two) and Alessia (seven).
“I couldn’t lift my little girl for about six weeks,” says Lorraine. “It wasn’t until I was able to lift her that I realised how much it had affected her. She was so excited. It broke my heart. She stayed in my arms for about a week.
“The older girl was devastated when I was in hospital. She didn’t really understand what was happening.”
Though Lorraine found a wealth of medical knowledge online, she couldn’t find personal accounts from woman her age who have gone through breast cancer. That led her to blog about her experience.
“In Ireland we don’t talk about things enough. My partner is Italian and they are so open about their health. I just wanted to give people information on the tests and what’s involved when you get to the hospital. I wanted to change the tone of voice of the cancer conversation. The fear of it is the worst.”
Lorraine and her partner Bruno are the owners of La Cucina, a popular award-winning Italian cafe in Castletroy, Limerick city, and she has a large following on Twitter. It didn’t take long for the blog to go viral.
“I posted a link to the blog on Twitter and my phone did not stop ringing. There were 2,500 views on the article that day and hundreds of retweets,” she says.
Following the success of her blog, where Lorraine gives an honest and sometimes humorous account of her treatment, she decided to organise a small fundraiser for the National Breast Cancer Research Institute in Galway (NBCRI) – and ended up raising over €13,000.
“I hadn’t planned on fundraising. The NBCRI was doing a fundraiser on Nollaig na mBán and I said I’d have a small raffle in the café and give away prizes from local businesses,” she explains.
“I sent out a tweet on New Year’s Eve looking for donations and everyone started retweeting it. The next day I had around 90 prizes.
“Then I set up a page on mycharity.ie for donations. My initial target was €3,000 but it kept growing. I’m going to keep doing fundraisers throughout the year now. I also have my boob box at La Cucina.”
Life is returning back to normal for Lorraine and she is back running the cafe – which boasts Paul O’Connell as a customer – and plans to expand the premises to incorporate a neighbouring unit.
Though Lorraine has praise for the doctors and nurses who treated her, she is critical of the impersonal way that the health service deals with cancer patients.
“The testing and all that was fine and the nurses were great, but communication was quite poor,” she says.
“I was receiving appointments in the post and I didn’t know why I was getting them.
“There was fear every time. One of my last ones was for an underarm ultrasound. That’s to check if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. However, that wasn’t explained to me, so I went straight on the internet to check why I needed this scan. Of course, I came to the worst conclusion.
“When I went to the hospital, everything was fine and it was just a routine scan. All the worry could be avoided if things were explained clearly.”
She also thinks that the age that women are eligible for free mammograms should be reduced.
“We don’t start free mammograms until 50 in Ireland, whereas in America it’s 40. Maybe that’s something that should be looked at,” says Lorraine.
“The key is the catch it early. Breast cancer is a very treatable form of cancer. Check yourself religiously and if you find something or notice any changes, go to the doctor.”
This time last year, Lorraine never imagined she would have been diagnosed with pre-cancer and undergone a mastectomy. Even if it was a life-changing experience, she wants women to know that losing a breast does not define who you are.
“Nothing has changed about me. That was my biggest fear, that the mastectomy would change me,” she says.
“Okay, I have different stuffing in there. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect who I am as a person.”
Friday, 28 March is Daffodil Day, the Irish Cancer Society’s major annual fundraiser. Look out for ways you can help support it.
Read more about Lorraine's story on her blog, morethanaboob.wordpress.com.
La Cucina, University Court, Castletroy, Limerick.
Telephone: 061 333980.