Your Stories: Teresa Costello on life after breast cancer

Today Teresa Costello, a breast cancer survivor, Breast Cancer Ireland Ambassador, blogger and moderator of online breast cancer support group Breast Friends, joins us to share her story and how she is finding life now, six years after her diagnosis.

Your name, age and where you’re from

Teresa Costello, I’m 42 and from Tallaght, Dublin.

Your diagnosis story

I was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, aged 36. My diagnosis was a total shock to me and of course my family and friends. I wasn’t Breast Aware, didn’t check myself regularly (at all in fact), I found my lump by chance in the shower.  Taking into consideration my age, family history, fitness and lifestyle, my GP wasn’t overly concerned however he referred me to St James’s Hospital, where upon examination they found an additional two tumours.  It was a whirlwind and I embarked on a treatment plan which consisted of chemotherapy, surgery (mastectomy and clearance of lymph nodes with immediate reconstruction to be followed by additional reconstruction) and radiotherapy.

How did you feel when you were first diagnosed?

It was a very surreal moment. I knew very little about cancer, I just assumed it was a death sentence, my son was my worry as I wanted to be around for him.

Your treatment plan

During chemo

I had four sessions of AC and four sessions of Taxol chemotherapy every two weeks. About six weeks after chemo finished, I had my surgery which was mastectomy and immediate reconstruction using muscle from my back. After recovering from surgery, I had radiotherapy. When all of my treatment was finished, I was then put on Tamoxifen and had an additional reconstructive surgery.

How did treatment go for you?

During radiotherapy

It was doable, chemo is tough mentally but I tried to give cancer very little energy and I tried to keep life as normal as possible – caring for my son, going to the gym, coffee with friends, nights out – I even managed to go on a few dates.

Worst/best part of treatment?

The worst part of treatment was the fear of the unknown as I had little to no experience or knowledge of cancer and it’s treatments – every step was a first for me so a lot of the time I was pretty frightened.

The best part of treatment for me was the love and kindness shown to me by other people – it restored my faith in human nature.

What got you through treatment?

My son – I was a single mam, he was only 5 when I was diagnosed. No one understands or could love him like I do so I was determined to stick around for him. Vanity also got me through – it sounds strange but I was determined not to let cancer make me look sick and leave my family with a picture of me in their heads looking so unwell. I found an inner strength to put my best foot forward, I focused only on what would make me feel better (good food, elimination of stress, no alcohol – I hate hangovers). I was determined to give cancer only limited time and that was the time when I was in hospital, other than that, I focused on my life and carrying on as normal as possible under the circumstances. Cancer may have taken my hair, lashes and peace of mind but I always had a fight in me to not give it anything I didn’t need to and to reclaim myself.

Single best advice that helped you

Drink lots of water! Drinking water is so important throughout treatment.

Where are you now/how are you now?

I’m back living in Tallaght, with my other half whom love blossomed with in the Radiotherapy waiting room! Healthwise, I am doing good. I am still on my Tamoxifen which I will be for 10 years. I do suffer with anxiety and fear from time to time but I haven’t met anyone who has had cancer that doesn’t. My son is now 11 and looking forward to making his confirmation next year.

Life is very busy and one of the most fulfilling parts of my life  is my role as a spokesperson and ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland. It is a great honour for me to share my story and do my bit to help raise awareness and educate others about breast cancer. The other part of my life which I am very proud of is Breast Friends – the blog/support community which I set up at the end of my treatment as I felt there was a lack of information and support available to girls going through breast cancer and their families and friends. When I was ill I had so many questions (not all medical) but had nowhere to turn to get answers – I had to find all the answers  myself. A lot of the time I felt fearful and isolated, not because I was alone but because I felt no one really understood what I was going through. I wanted to make sure that other girls wouldn’t be filled with fear like I was going through breast cancer. By sharing my experience, chatting to girls online, I hope to shed some light on the lesser talked about aspects of breast cancer. I am also determined to show girls that there is life after a diagnosis and draw attention to the fact that there are many girls in their 20’s and 30’s being diagnosed with breast cancer – it’s not just an older woman’s illness.

How do you feel about your cancer experience now?

Cancer is something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I look back on it now and acknowledge that I am a better person after having cancer. My perspective and attitude to life has improved and I think I lead a better quality of life. I take nothing for granted and enjoy every day to the max.

Has cancer changed you, if yes, how?

Yes, I’m still me but I take more chances these days. I grab opportunities, I don’t fear change and I have a greater appreciation for the little things in life.

Have you changed anything in your life as a result of cancer, if yes, what and how?

Everything about my life has changed since cancer. Cancer made me no longer fear change or taking a chance so since my diagnosis I have moved house, changed career, went from being single to in a relationship! When I think about it there is very little about my life that is similar to what it was before I had cancer.

What helps you now if you have a difficult day?

With author Emma Hannigan

If I’m having a difficult day where I am feeling anxious or having a bit of a fearful wobble, I just bring myself to the present moment – I have a little checklist I tick off, for example if I am getting anxious worrying if I will have a recurrence, I will bring myself back to the fact that right now I am in good health and I feel grateful for that. It helps me realise that what has me having a difficult day is worrying about what if’s, when I just need to focus on the actual present situation which isn’t bad at all.

Single best purchase that helped you through cancer

I got a cleaner to come clean my house during treatment – it meant that I wasn’t worrying about having to do housework and it was one stressful thing eliminated.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone recently diagnosed, what would it be?

Stay away from Google! That will only inject more fear and anxiety into you than you could ever imagine and most of it is exaggerated or untrue. Also, one other really important piece of advice is take each day as it comes to you and deal with stuff as it happens – don’t preempt things.

Thank you so much Teresa for sharing your story with us.

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