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Galway mum recovers from her ‘perfect storm’

It was a savagely perfect storm in already turbulent waters for Helen Flynn when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She had been due to go to the GP for an appointment to check her right breast, which had a strange full feeling for a time. She was also suffering from chronic fatigue – but she put this down to her being a single mom to two sons with autism.

Stress was also a major factor. Helen was really struggling in her personal life. A merchandiser for Anthony Ryan’s Department Store and then Debenhams, she was a survivor of domestic violence and had been living in a refuge before battling to secure a more permanent home for herself and her children.

They moved from guesthouse to guesthouse, which her sons found particularly challenging as they could not cope with the lack of routine and consistency.

And then Covid hit.

“Two days prior to my appointment Leo [Varadkar] came on the steps in Washington and advised us to do our bit not to overwhelm the health services. I cancelled the appointment – I didn’t want to feel embarrassed about wasting a doctor’s time. I didn’t observe a lump, just fullness, so I thought I’d just keep on eye on it.”

By October 2020 when there was a temporary easing of restrictions, she saw her doctor for the same complaint. The GP immediately found two tumours and referred her for a biopsy. Within two days she underwent a biopsy, which revealed she had HER2 triple-negative breast cancer. She was 44.

“It was very fast-paced. Within two days I was on the chemotherapy journey. Mine was the fastest-growing breast cancer, protein-based rather than hormone-based, so I’ll always live the regret of not going in March. It had spread to my lymph nodes so now I have to live with lymphedema (swelling). Early intervention really is the key.”

As well as the trauma of the diagnosis and the treatment, she had the added stress of trying to care for her children without family back-up. Helen grew up in an orphanage in Kerry, moving to study art in Galway when she was 17.

“I wrote to [family and children agency] Tusla telling them how I was brought up in an orphanage. I had no family network. I was homeless. I got the back-up of principals – people in COPE Galway, the refuge, my oncologist, everyone. I needed to get them into a foster family. But they said no, not during this time. They told me to reach out to family.”

Helen remembers arriving for one of her hospital appointments with her two kids in tow. At this stage she was in a motorised wheelchair – “donated by a secret Santa not the HSE” – unable to move her legs or arms after an allergic reaction to the chemotherapy.

“It was a catastrophic time. I was the carer of two autistic boys. There was no Plan B. I had my rejection letter from Tusla with me. This is what I was trying to avoid by going to Tusla. They put us in an isolated room, and I spent eight hours with no access to water. I was in agony. My bladder had a reaction to the meds. I was howling to the moon.”

She reluctantly reached out for support.

“Because I carried so much uncomfortable trauma, it doesn’t make for polite conversation to talk about being in an orphanage, working in a laundry, domestic violence, rape, coercion, so I kept a lot of things private in my life,” she reflects.

“I always say cancer was the one socially acceptable trauma we endured. It did give me permission to say why this was particularly challenging to us. It actually made me do the most challenging thing – open up and let people in to help us. A lot of these people were there already, I just didn’t let them in. I have a fabulous network of friends and community who give us a tremendous amount of support.

“That’s the one good thing about cancer – provided it stays outside the door from now on.”

After chemo, surgery and multiple hepatic infusions, she officially finished treatment last January. But her oncology team will be monitoring her closely. Her mother died of the same cancer.

Thankfully, the stress of being homeless has also dissipated. She moved into a ‘forever home’ in Roscam provided by Galway City Council.

Through the storm…Helen Flynn today.

“We’re in a very different place from the rollercoaster we were on good heavens,” she beams.

“After my tremendously traumatic childhood, I was hyper-vigilant and aware that we would remain in the eye of the storm and that my children would be quite oblivious to the bigger picture of trauma.

“They’re solid, centred. They have an awful lot of achievements. They’re gifted in programming and coding. They’re very resilient. Considering how bad we look on paper, there’s no drinking, no smoking, no blackguarding. We just got unlucky in life. We never invited any of it in.”

Helen urges woman, and in particular carers, to heed any warning signs in their bodies, which can often be ignored due to exhaustion and stress.

She looks forward to the next chapter of their lives.

Her eldest, now twelve, is about to start secondary school. Both have thrived in an ASD unit of a mainstream city school.

“This isn’t going to define us. I’m determined to change the trajectory. There’s a lot of hope, a lot of exciting things to look forward to,” she exclaims happily.

“My children will always need a certain amount of care. It’s important I stay around to give them a greater chance of being independent.”

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness month this October, the Irish Cancer Society is asking you to ‘Care For Your Pair’ by being breast aware, checking your breasts regularly and encouraging others to do the same. Always speak to your GP if you notice anything unusual.

To support vital breast cancer research and free care, counselling and transport for breast cancer patients, host a Big Pink Breakfast for your friends, family and colleagues. Visit: to find out more

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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