NI woman urges mammogram attendance after breast cancer diagnosis in her 40s

A Co Down woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer after attending an Action Cancer screening programme, is highlighting her journey in the hope that it may encourage others to attend a mammogram.

Keri Finlay first attended Action Cancer just before the pandemic, encouraged by a friend to get checked out as she had just been diagnosed herself with breast cancer at the age of 42. The Ballygowan woman's first mammogram produced clear results and two years later she received a letter from Action Cancer stating that it was now time for her to attend her next screening.

Keri attended Action Cancer House on September 21, 2022 and again, when she left, she thought nothing more of it. But little did she know, that the 49-year-old would soon be told she had a tumour in her breast, which was 8mm in size.

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On Friday, June 7, a sea of pink will sweep through Belfast once again as Action Cancer hosts the Breast Foot Forward Walk sponsored by SuperValu. With nearly 500 people already registered, participants are looking forward to a evening that will raise thousands for Action Cancer’s life-saving breast screening service, that Keri availed of.

The charity is encouraging men, women and children of all ages to participate in the fun-filled family event – where dogs are welcome too! Walkers will arrive at Belfast City Hall at 6pm to a fun warm up with Fitness Freddie and lots of free goodies. Participants will not only raise much needed funds but increase awareness of breast cancer by choosing to walk either a 5K or a 10K route.

Two weeks after Keri's second screening, she received a letter stating that something had been detected and that further follow up at a breast cancer clinic was required.

Keri Finlay
Keri Finlay -Credit:Action Cancer

She said: "When I opened the letter I didn’t panic, I just thought it would be a cyst or something and that all would be fine. The letter said that for every 12 women referred, only one receives a cancer diagnosis so I just thought it’s okay, that won’t be me.

"My mum died of cervical cancer at the age of 29. Whenever I was 30, I had a cervical cancer scare and I thought I was going to die. I completely broke down but it turned out that everything was fine in the end.

"Since that happened, I changed my outlook on life and no longer worried about what might happen. I no longer catastrophised and always tried to view everything positively unless I was told otherwise.

"I attended the breast clinic at the Ulster Hospital two weeks later and I went alone as I thought I’ll be in and out in no time, I can do this on my own, it’s not a big deal.

"That day, I had a physical examination, mammogram, ultrasound and biopsies. As the morning went on and other patients came and went, I became increasingly worried that perhaps I might be that one person in five who was going to come away with a diagnosis.

"When all the tests were completed I was brought into a room with a sofa and a box of tissues and I knew instantly what was coming.

"The Consultant informed me that I had breast cancer in the left breast which was 8mm in size. I would need surgery to remove it, possibly a little radiotherapy but the cancer had been caught early, it was treatable and the outlook was very positive.

"I didn’t break down in that room, I just took all the information on board. I drove home and told my husband and that day I made a series of car journeys. I went and told my sister, my dad and his wife Jenny and my auntie, all in person. It was really hard to see their reaction to my news. I deliberately made the decision not to tell wider family or friends. I didn’t want people to be worrying and stressing about me. I wanted to handle this on my own, on my terms."

Keri had surgery on October 26 to remove the cancerous lump and a number of lymph nodes. Following surgery, the nodes were tested and it was decided that chemotherapy was also needed in addition to radiotherapy and the drug, Herceptin.

Chemo came as the biggest shock on her journey, Keri said. Being extremely close with her nephew Jake, who was 10 at the time, she said she had intended to keep all of this from him to protect him. However, chemo brought a whole new dynamic in that her hair loss was something that she would not be able to hide from him.

Keri had six sessions of chemo, starting mid-December followed by 10 sessions of radiotherapy.

"I found the chemo to be really tough. I couldn’t focus on anything, even reading a book or watching TV was a struggle. I found audiobooks to be the only thing that worked for me. My husband Greg was amazing, he just sat with me on those particularly difficult days and brought me a cup of tea when I needed it.

"My family were really kind and brought me lots of lovely food to tempt me. I spoke to my sister every day and updated her on how I was getting on. My sister then relayed the daily update to my dad and my aunt which made things easier for me. On the days that I felt better my family were always there to meet up and do something fun.

Last year's event
Keri with her sister Niki

"My nephew Jake texted me every day asking me how I was. He was so worried about me and wanted to look after me which I found hard because it should have been the other way around. Losing my hair was upsetting, but I decided that I didn’t want a wig that looked like my normal hair.

"So, I went online and ordered a range of pink funky wigs. By trying to add an element of fun, I think that made it easier for me, as well as Jake, to handle this side effect of chemo."

Following radiotherapy, Keri is now cancer free and is on a phased return to work. The support from the Open University has made this journey much easier for Keri.

She added: "I’m very keen now for life to get back to normal. I always enjoyed life but now I am embracing it wholeheartedly and saying yes to opportunities and having as much fun as possible. I am very grateful to my family for their ongoing support and am looking forward to going on a Mediterranean cruise with them all in May of next year.

"I had to cancel a trip of a lifetime to Manila with my uncle earlier this year due my treatment, so I intend on holidaying now whenever I can!” I believe Action Cancer saved my life through early breast cancer detection. We are really fortunate here in Northern Ireland to have this service on either side of the NHS screening programme.

"I would encourage any woman in her 40s or over the age of 70 to book a mammogram and get checked out. It’s 20 minutes that could save your life. I’m now looking to become more involved with Action Cancer as a volunteer as I want to give back to the charity that I owe my life to and raise awareness of their cancer prevention, detection and support services."

Last year’s Breast Foot Forward Walk was Action Cancer’s most successful to date, hosting almost 800 participants raising an incredible £77,000, ultimately funding potentially life-saving breast screening appointments for 641 local women.

Action Cancer is the only charity to provide this service for free to women aged 40-49 and over the age of 70; outside of NHS screening age range. While each breast screening appointment is free to the user the cost to the charity is £120.

Every year Action Cancer helps to save and support 20,000 people across Northern Ireland through the delivery of its services including the provision of 8,000 breast screening appointments at Action Cancer House and on board the Big Bus, supported by SuperValu and Centra. For every 1,000 women screened, an average of six breast cancers are detected.

Desi Derby, Director of Marketing at Musgrave NI, added: "As a long-term partner of Action Cancer, SuperValu is delighted to sponsor this superb event once again. The event is a great opportunity for families, friends, or groups of work colleagues to come together, walk in memory of a loved one or support someone going through breast cancer, and raise vital funds for this local charity."

Registration is £15 per adult and £7 per child, and everyone taking part will receive a drawstring bag for life and complimentary pink t-shirt. Register in person at Belfast City Hall tomorrow from 6pm with the walk starting at 7pm.

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