Tracy McCausland is proof that being breast aware can save your life.

The mum of two, who lives in the countryside outside Lisburn with her two sons, dog, cat, alpacas and hens, was diagnosed with breast cancer by Action Cancer.

Given her age at the time, she was not eligible for the NHS routine breast screening programme, which is offered every three years to women between the ages of 50 and 71.

Now cancer free, she says: “I believe that Action Cancer saved my life through early detection. My surgeon told me had I waited until my first NHS mammogram or until I felt a lump, I would be facing a much worse situation.”

Tracy, who has taken up a role as an ambassador for Action Cancer, became aware of the services provided by the charity after her dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015.

“I was really impressed by the cancer services on offer by Action Cancer and the fact that all funds raised stay here in Northern Ireland to support local people inspired me to get involved in some fundraising,” she explains.

Over the subsequent years, 51-year-old Tracy – mum to Callum (21) and 17-year Sam, was keen to support Action Cancer and took part in a number of fundraising events, including a zip line across the River Lagan.

She also abseiled down Belfast Castle a year after her dad’s death.

Her involvement in the charity led to her booking her first mammogram at the age of 47 in 2019.

She continues: “My first mammogram was surprisingly a bit of a breeze, I thought it would be invasive or painful but I would only describe it as slightly uncomfortable at worst.

“The staff are so lovely and really put you at ease, chatting to you throughout the whole process and explaining everything to you. The screening clinic is a lovely calming environment and I was in and out of there in 20 minutes.”

Tracy was given the all clear and told she could come back for routine screening in two years’ time.

Fast forward to the start of 2022 and Tracy was at Fintra beach on the Donegal coast, walking her dog Luna when she started to reflect on a to-do list for the year ahead.

“Conscious of the fact I was turning 50 in May I ran through in my head what needed to be done and one of the things on my list was to squeeze in another mammogram by Action Cancer,” she says.

“I was aware of the fact that it may be one or two years more before I would be called by the NHS screening programme.

“With my boys both having medical conditions, I’ve always tried to be proactive about my own health, because I need to be around as long as possible for them.”

Striking while the iron was hot, Tracy booked her breast screening appointment online on her phone right there and then on the beach. She attended her second mammogram in February 2022 but this time she received a letter 10 days letter saying that something had been detected and that further investigation was required. 

Having private medical insurance Tracy attended the Ulster Independent Clinic for follow up a few days later.

She says: “I was pretty blasé going into that appointment. I went on my own and I thought it would all be fine, it would be a cyst or something.”

However, it turned out to be cancer.

She recalls: “Nothing ever prepares you to hear those words. It was like being sucked down a dark tunnel especially because I had been quite light-hearted making jokes a few minutes previously. You kind of lose sense of where you are, it’s like the word cancer has an echo all of its own.

“I remember going outside and sitting in the car, just trying to catch my breath. It was then that the tears came. The first person that I rang was the boys’ dad. He’s very pragmatic which was what I needed at that time. He reassured me that what needed to happen would happen and we’d just take it a step at a time.”

Tracy faced further tests and an anxious wait for treatment.

“Once the cancer word is mentioned, it’s like no-man’s land,” she continues. “The days where you are uncertain what the plan is you feel that time has slowed way down. Once you know you have it, you want to know instantly how you are going to get rid of it.”

The results of an MRI surprised the surgeon. It revealed there were actually not one, but two tumours and a 7cm area of pre-cancerous cells.

The surgeon recommended a full mastectomy of the left breast and removal of lymph nodes. At this point, Tracy was forced to tell her boys about her diagnosis.

“Having to sit down with them and explain at a level that they could understand was really challenging,” she says.

“I didn’t want to scare them but inside I was petrified. Trying to remain calm while reassuring them that all would be okay.”

The surgery went according to plan and Tracy was home within two days, returning a week later to get pathology results.

“The night before that appointment I had a panic attack, I was going in the next day to find out my fate and I was terrified,” she says.

“Up until that point I was telling everybody that was I was doing fine. But that night I realised I actually was really not okay.”

So, she was relieved to be told the cancer had been removed and radiotherapy and chemotherapy weren’t required.

“The news was a huge relief, I hugged my surgeon and thanked him for saving my life,” says Tracy.

“All that emotion I had been holding back for the last 10 weeks just all came out at once. I was crying and laughing simultaneously.”

Tracy was with a friend at the time, who hugged her so tight a number of stitches burst. She has since undergone breast reconstruction surgery and is cancer free.

“It’s really important that women avail of the fact you can come back to Action Cancer every two years in your 40s for your routine mammogram,” she says. “We’re so fortunate to have this service here in Northern Ireland because it’s not available anywhere else in the rest of the UK or Ireland. Book that mammogram today and make it a priority – 20 minutes of your time and it could save your life.”