Liz Constantinescu tells Jessica Quinn about her breast cancer journey and the importance of being vigilant
LIZ Constantinescu recalls the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, leaving the hospital and looking blankly at the parking ticket machine, her mind racing and wondering what had just happened.
The Ennis mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 told The Clare Champion how her life was saved by a local GP and has urged women to ‘Care For Your Pair’ by being breast aware and checking their breasts regularly.
Liz was diagnosed with breast cancer when her youngest child was just two years of age. Her mother had had breast cancer 25 years ago, and her fiance Gio’s mother had died from the disease, so she was aware of the need to check herself.
However after the birth of her baby and breast feeding she wasn’t sure what she should be looking for and decided to go to her GP, Dr Maire Finn.
“I wasn’t sure what was normal for me after breastfeeding, I couldn’t really work out what I was feeling so I went to my GP, really just for a bit of reassurance, I had no suspicions anything was wrong.
“Dr Finn checked them and didn’t feel any lumps, but because I was 46 and would have to wait another four years until I was 50 to go for routine screening she referred me to the breast check unit in Limerick, just to be sure.”
They didn’t find anything either, and Liz was scheduled for a mammogram six weeks later.
Two weeks after the mammogram she was asked to come back in to get some extra shots. An ultrasound found a lump and a biopsy was performed there and then.
“In the past I would have thought that they would have asked me to come back in a few weeks time, but she literally stuck a needle in my breast and numbed it and then extracted a piece of tissue which was a little bit frightening”.
She recalls, “Afterwards I went downstairs, I had been on my own that day because I wasn’t expecting anything to be wrong. They always tell you to take somebody with you when you get the results, but it was like I had already got the results once she said the word biopsy.
“I literally stood at the parking machine, just staring at it and my head was going, what the actual heck just happened?”
Two weeks later she was told she would have to have the lump removed and start radiation treatment.
Five days before Christmas she had a lumpectomy and found out that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
The lump was 4cm in size and as the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes she was told she had stage 2B cancer.
“If they catch it at stage 1 there is a 100% chance of it being cured, and then it’s a sliding scale so that shows the importance of catching it early,” says Liz.
She had a second operation and started six months of chemotherapy in April, followed by five weeks of radiation.
Describing chemotherapy she says, “It’s rough, it’s like having a five day hangover. But it’s bearable.
“They said I’d lose my hair, so I was prepared for that and one of my daughter Mia’s school friends had been through it all so she gave me brilliant advice.
“You can be a bit self conscious about it sometimes, but you just have to get on with it and make the best of it that you can.”
One of the hardest moments for Liz was telling her children about her diagnosis.
“I waited until I had all the correct information to be able to tell them. My daughter’s friend’s mom had died at the start of the year so she literally looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked, is it terminal?”
“Luckily I had all the facts and figures. She was doing probability in school and I was able to show her the statistics for my stage, and she was alright after that.
“It was a tricky conversation to have, but they always say give them the facts because otherwise they will fill in the blanks so I was glad the first question she asked was if it was terminal, because to me it was never going to be terminal. On a scale of one to ten, I was a one.
“My son, he was only two so he didn’t really have a clue what was going on and then my hair fell out and he used to pat me on the head and say ‘I like your no hair Mommy’.”
She tells us she was “ultra, ultra lucky” with the support she had from family and friends.
“My fiance Gio Stoppiello was an absolute hero.
“He took a bit of time off and worked from home, cooking all the meals and looking after the kids if I wasn’t up to it.
“My parents live in England, and they came over a good few times and would stay with us for weeks at a time to help out. And of course I have lots of lovely, lovely friends who rallied around in different ways. There was so much love and support, and lots of gifts too.”
Liz is an accredited counsellor and did her thesis on the positive experience counselling can bring to breast cancer patients.
She experienced this first-had and describes the staff at the Daffodil Centre and Cancer Support Centre in Limerick as “fantastic”.
“They answered all my questions and paired me with a survivor support volunteer who gave me emotional and practical support. I could go in there for tea and a biscuit and a bit of calm.
“They provided leaflets on everything and I could ring their support line when I was having a bad day. I even did this after I had finished my treatment, they were awesome.”
Liz finished her treatment in November 2018. She still meets up with members of the breast cancer survivor group, however a recent tragic loss has highlighted to Liz just how lucky she has been.
“One of the eight of us died about six weeks ago and she’s younger than me. I think her cancer was more advanced than mine when they first caught it and it came back.
“It just kind of wakes you up, that I lost a friend and I’m sitting here and I survived and there are others who aren’t so lucky.
“They found mine early and I’m just extremely lucky. I wouldn’t have made it to 50 years of age if my GP hadn’t said it to me to get a breast check screening.
“My GP saved my life. If I’d have waited four years for regular screening, I wouldn’t actually be here.”
She concludes, “Cancer is not a battle, I call it hide and seek. As soon as it was found, it was like I’d won.
“While it was hiding it was doing its mischief and spreading, but once it is exposed to the light of the day then something be could done about it. And the earlier it is found the easier it is to fix so Care For Your Pair.”
by Jessica Quinn