By Daragh Small
The risk of developing breast cancer is generally around 11 percent but those who carry the BRCA 2 gene are almost eight times more likely to get the disease.
Royal Portrush golfer Judithe Allen knew her father possessed the gene, her grandmother had breast cancer as did her aunt and her mother has battled with it for 15 years.
Last year as she turned 25, she went for an MRI, and unfortunately, Allen discovered that she had developed breast cancer. She then chose to have a double mastectomy.
“My mother is Stage 4 at the minute. When I got diagnosed, it was a bit of a shock to everybody but breast cancer is quite strong in my family,” said Allen.
“The BRCA 2 gene comes from my dad. I knew he had it and then I knew my older sister had it. I went maybe two years ago to have that blood test to see if I had the gene and it came back that I did.”
The 26-year-old is from Greenisland just outside Belfast where her father, Gary, is club captain. Along with her sisters Julliah and Rebekah they got into golf through him, though Judithe was the only one who stuck with it.
She was also involved in hockey and played in the EY Hockey League before her world stood still after her cancer diagnosis.
“I used to play hockey, I have given up now because of the surgery, it’s too risky,” said Judithe.
After the initial blood test and informed by the experiences of her mother, Alison, she went for her MRI.
It was 12 months ago last week when she got her first annual scan, that was on a Monday and by that Friday she had a letter in the post telling her she needed to return for more tests at Antrim Hospital.
They did two mammograms, an ultrasound and two biopsies but there was an undercurrent of inevitability.
“They were sticking needles in and taking samples to check if there was anything. Then they said we will come back a week later,” said Allen.
“At the time there was a radiographer, she was doing my scans and turned around to me and said at least if it is anything you have caught it early. Those words lasted with me and I said they obviously think it is something.
“Then the week later, I went back for my results, I was in the waiting room and everybody was double or triple my age.”
As she watched the clock, the other patients came and went and her appointment ran one hour over. Together with her mother, father and sister, Allen waited patiently but knew something was not right.
“It was severe anxiety. The four of us were looking around at each other, we kind of all knew, if it had have been good news he would have brought me in straight away,” said Allen.
“But the longer it went on and these women were in and out in two minutes, they all had big smiles on their faces and I was still sitting there.
“He actually came out in scrubs and I thought this is not good. He called me in and said one of the samples came back and it’s breast cancer. I thought surely not, I’m only 25 and I’m going through it here with my mum.
“It was a shock to the system for all of us, I had never heard someone so young having it.”
Even if Allen had been checking she would likely have missed the cancer, it had taken the form of sprinkles rather than a single lump and that scared her most – the cancer would have got worse without any symptoms.
She was given a few options; they could remove the cancerous area and combine that with six weeks of radiotherapy, they could take one breast off or both and replace them with implants.
“The majority of BRCA 2 patients who have the gene opt for that surgery anyway just to get rid of that 82 percent chance of getting cancer,” said Allen.
“That surgery was always in the back of my mind. It was on my sister’s mind too, it happened ten years earlier. I was like why go through two surgeries when I can do them both.”
She had her tests and received her diagnosis in early October and by 8 November she went into surgery under Consultant, and Portstewart golfer, Mr Stephen Dace.
“We were bantering about the golf and I said I want this surgery and he said, no, no you need to come back with your final decision but I already knew,” said Allen.
There was always a risk she would not be able to play golf again but Allen was determined to recover over the winter months and be back out on the course for the Royal Portrush Scratch Cup in April.
However, nothing could have prepared her for the recovery post-operation. She was off work between November and June and while her mother faced into her own continuing battle, Allen had to fast-track her recuperation.
“When you came out of hospital you can’t even lift a bag of sugar for four or five weeks,” said Allen.
“You’re not allowed to lift your hands over your head. Even lifting stuff off the floor, it was just such an effort. You were so weak, so tired and once you got the surgery done it was kind of like clay hardening, that’s what the constant pain was like on your chest.
“Even your arms were so weak and you are exhausted. You have no energy, even getting out of bed for the first couple of weeks, I needed mum or dad to come up and give me a hand.”
Allen would sleep for up to 16 hours a day but she was back driving after just two and a half weeks and even though there was a family wedding on the way, it was a tough January.
“You take that low mental period and you hit a brick wall and say what has gone on in the last couple of months?” said Allen.
“People stop checking in with you, for a while you were at the forefront of everybody’s mind but at the end of the day life goes on and you get on with things and start to move on and get on with your life.”
Golf was her saviour and as she began to eye up the fixtures and the AIG Senior Cup, Allen knew she had to get the basics right first.
She went to the pitch and putt course in Portrush with her father, and after parring 11 of the 12 holes she knew she still had it.
Allen hastily entered the Scratch Cup in Royal Portrush and despite playing the first 14 holes in Level Par, 36 holes was too much of an ask, just five months after her surgery.
“I said I will give it a go and got a buggy signed off by my doctor. It was probably the worst thing I could have done. I was playing with Clodagh Coughlan and Ella Proctor and I played steady for the first 14 but then the wheels came off, I was completely zonked.
“We had our lunch and I came out and played the first two holes and I couldn’t even swing through the ball, I was just completely exhausted and my Dad and Clodagh said to me, that’s it, you’re going in, it’s not worth it.”
Although Allen had suffered a real shock to the system on her competitive return, she still had the fire and obviously the talent to compete.
Royal Portrush received a bye in the first round of the AIG Senior Cup and their opener got pushed back to July.
It began an extraordinary summer of golf, Allen was part of an Ulster team that beat Connacht and secured the Women’s Interprovincial Championship at Moyvalley earlier this month.
And then on 10 September she won her singles match 6&5 in the final as Royal Portrush ended a ten-year wait for AIG Senior Cup glory at Dun Laoghaire.
“It was actually so unexpected, we just couldn’t believe that we had won the interpros. That was massive and then last week it just topped the whole thing off,” said Allen.
It was the culmination of a brilliant summer, after her sister got married in Portugal too but she knows she was one of the lucky ones and urges other women to get checked now.
“Check your breasts at least once a month especially when you are in the shower, it’s the best place,” said Allen.
“It is the scary thought of having to check, in case you find something, but it’s so important. If you get invited for your mammogram, take them up. They are lifesaving, they have saved me.
“Just by me speaking out, I have friends, golfers, I have said you need to check yourself and they said they have been doing it. They didn’t realise somebody so young could get it.
“That’s the most important thing, check yourself and if you get invited for your mammogram make sure you go because it can save your life.”