Co Tyrone mum campaigns to promote way to avoid hair loss during breast cancer treatment
However, the prospect of losing her hair during chemotherapy filled the her with such horror that she began a search for ways to try and avoid it.
Kara, from Fintona, discovered cold caps and was stunned to learn that while they are available free to cancer patients on the NHS in the rest of the UK, the service is not provided here in Northern Ireland.
She is now hoping to lobby the government to try and secure equity of treatment for local people who otherwise have to pay around £2000 for the cap.
“I’ve already written to Robin Swann but there is little he or anyone can do until Stormont is back up and running,” the 28-year-old says.
“My cancer was not nearly as traumatic as it would have been if I had not had the fortune to use a cold cap and I just can’t believe that it is not an option here but is freely available to patients in the rest of the UK.”
Kara was just 27 when she was diagnosed with stage two triple positive breast cancer.
She only recently finished treatment and now with husband Davie (31), a steel erector, is trying to get life back to normal as son Daniel (6) returns to school and their two-year-old daughter Sarah prepares to start playschool for the first time.
It has been a tough year of chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and hormone therapy which has left her coping at 28 years old with early menopause.
Despite everything she has come through, as well as her work to secure cold caps for other cancer patients, Kara is also urging people to support a new campaign that shines a light on the invaluable impact that cancer breakthroughs have on the lives of people like her.
It comes as data released by Cancer Research UK reveals around 75,500 deaths from cancer have been avoided in Northern Ireland since the mid-1970s, due to advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
Over the last five decades, cancer mortality rates have fallen by 23% in Northern Ireland after peaking for women in 1974 and men in 1978.
Kara says she is living proof of the power of research as she is being treated with a drug that Cancer Research UK helped to develop.
Now she is backing the charity’s ‘Together We Are Beating Cancer’ campaign to help ensure life-saving progress like this continues.
The awareness and fundraising drive, that includes posters displayed across Northern Ireland, highlights the heart-warming moments — from big birthdays and anniversary celebrations to quality time with loved ones — being made possible for people affected by cancer, right now.
“The number of lives that have been saved in Northern Ireland shows the immense power of research, “she says.
“I know this better than most. Research into better treatments has given me the greatest gift — more time with my loved ones. I am looking forward to seeing my youngest child who will be three in October start playschool and recently we marked another wedding anniversary — all moments that were impossible to imagine when I heard the devastating words: ‘It’s cancer’. “
Although most of her treatment is now finished, she will have to take medication for the next 10 years to prevent the hormone driven breast cancer from returning.
Kara was having a shower when she discovered a lump in her breast on March 4, 2022.
It was because another young woman from Tyrone had raised awareness of her own breast cancer diagnosis on social media that she felt she should get herself checked out.
She made an appointment with her GP and although he reassured her that because of her age cancer was unlikely, he referred her for further investigation.
She recalls: “Because of my age I was going to go to the breast clinic by myself because I really believed I was too young to have breast cancer.
“In the end Davie came with me but he stayed in the car as there were still some Covid-19 restrictions.
“I didn’t know what to expect but when they did an ultrasound and said I would need a mammogram and biopsies and asked if I had anyone with me I knew something was wrong.
“My biggest fear was chemo as I did not want to lose my hair, everything else I could have dealt with. I was told that they wanted to start chemo in April and I really couldn’t get my head round it.
“I remember after my cancer was confirmed my oncology team talking to me about wigs when discussing my chemotherapy and thinking how in this day and age are people still losing their hair through chemo.
“I searched online and found cold cap therapy and then couldn’t believe that it wasn’t available here but was free to patients in the rest of the UK.
“I was lucky that I knew someone who was able to help me get a cold cap and I had the treatment.
“Everyone said to me that I was very positive about what I was going through but the difference was because I didn’t lose my hair.
“Like everything the cold cap treatment is not 100% guaranteed to work for everyone but it worked for me, I’m proof of that as I didn’t even have a bald patch and I can’t believe that the option isn’t available to people here.”
The cold cap works by freezing the hair follicle to prevent it from falling out.
It is a time-intensive process involving the delivery of dry ice which the cap then has to sit in for an hour before chemo until it reaches a temperature of minus 30.
Kara says: “It was a lot of work, and you have to keep an eye on the temperature. We got the ice delivered the day before from Polar Ice in Newry and my husband really helped by getting the cap ready.
“It is such a costly thing, but the rewards are priceless. Not losing my hair helped me feel like a normal person.
“I honestly would never have left the house if I had lost my hair, it would have knocked my confidence so so much and now I really want to get it into Northern Ireland for other patients.”
Kara did suffer severe side effects from the chemotherapy and her treatment now means she is also contending with menopause at 28.
She also has lost the function of her ovaries and feels blessed that she has her two children.
Although life has changed dramatically for her, she is thinking of others and also feels passionate about warning young women that they could be at risk of breast cancer.
She adds: “I thought I was too young to get breast cancer. I never checked myself until I read about a local girl my age being diagnosed.
“I really want to raise awareness among people my age and even younger of how important it is to know their bodies and check regularly for any changes.
“Life is never going to be the same for me and the treatment has left me with brain fog and chronic fatigue. While it has been an experience I am never going to forget, I do have to take the positives out of it.
“I don’t stress over silly things anymore and I will book the holidays rather than wait. I am happy that I am now cancer free, and I am focusing on keeping healthy and of course doing my regular breast checks.
“I think it is important to break the stigma that still prevents people from talking about cancer and let people know it is OK to talk about it.
“I wouldn’t be here without the scientists who strive to find new ways to outsmart cancer and the incredible fundraisers who make it all possible.
“So, now I’m determined to do what I can to show my support. I hope I can inspire people across Northern Ireland to do the same. They could help bring hope and joy to more families like mine.
“My family and friends have been amazing throughout this journey, and I could not have coped without them. I especially want to thank my husband Davie who has been my absolute rock.”
The Department of Health said the reason why we didn’t have cold cap treatment in Northern Ireland was largely due to funding.
A spokesperson said: “Within Northern Ireland, a comprehensive range of cancer treatments and supportive therapies are provided. For those who experience hair loss as a consequence of cancer treatment, wigs and hair pieces are also available.
“The Northern Ireland Cancer Network has previously considered the potential role of cold caps in preventing hair loss during chemotherapy treatment matter. At that time, the network advised that the evidence on the clinical and cost effectiveness of cold caps was not sufficient for this service to be routinely commissioned.
“Currently cold caps and other scalp cooling techniques are not routinely commissioned; this position could be reassessed if new or emerging evidence becomes available and funding was in place.”
As part of the new CRUK campaign people are also being invited to share their personal moments, either of their own cancer journey or that of a loved one, through a dedicated photo-wall and on social media by using #MoreMoments.
You can support the new CRUK campaign by donating at cruk.org/donate