This is the short story of how ‘Valerie’, that’s me on the left, discovered a way of ‘making women feel and look beautiful after breast cancer in Ireland’ and why like most women, it’s a subject we often don’t get to talk about. (original article was written by Valerie & printed by Happy Magazine 2019)
It is another very hot day in this great ‘Southern State’ of the US. I am sitting here with my new Texan friends and they are aghast, listening to recent family camping experiences during our afternoon together. ‘Have you not heard about the rattlesnakes, Miss Valerie?’ ‘Don’t you know we have wild hogs here in the Hill Country? The Texan drawl was unmistakable, reminiscent of all those groundbreaking new TV soaps that arrived in Ireland during the ’80s.
Feeling like a visitor on the set of Dallas, I wondered would they start just calling me ‘Valerie’. It wasn’t quite easy to figure out whether being called a ‘Miss’ was too old or too young a label in their eyes. This is my third get-together with these women and there is still a big adjusting as to how polite everyone is. There is none of the usual slagging and messing that goes on at home when a group of women get together. Certainly, the family was looking for something different whilst here in Texas and we certainly got it in spades. It is all good fun, and really, it would not do any harm to be watching the p’s and q’s a bit.
Frankie, our one-year-old, is playing on the floor with his toys, whilst I am drinking tea and eating Texan Pecan Pie made especially for us today, by our lovely host Miss Merrill. We are the ‘Ouch Cushions Ladies’, and as one of their most recently recruited volunteers, we are busily stuffing cushion covers this afternoon for our charity ‘The Breast Cancer Resource Centre of Texas’ BCRC. The ‘Ouch Cushions’ are given to women as gifts while in hospital and recovering from breast surgery. The Anti-Ouch Pouch is a wedge-shaped cushion that hangs from an adjustable shoulder strap. It fits under the arm to offer support to the area after a mastectomy or breast surgery, and during radiation treatment. Perfect for when a woman is back driving again and needs that extra comfort, against the breast area, while wearing her seatbelt
It’s the summer of 2012 and my family and I have just recently arrived in Texas where we will be living for a year. Finbarr, my husband, is working with the University of Texas in Austin, and we are here with our three children, Paddy (4), Isolde (3), and Frankie (1).
Getting back to the ‘Ouch Cushions’. How did I get to be sitting there with these fabulous Texans, stuffing cushions, of all things? Well, as lovely it is to meet people at the children’s park and toddler groups, there is always time to be doing a little more whilst settling into a new neighborhood. Always keen and on the lookout for new ideas, what better way to take advantage of being somewhere new and vibrant than to become a local volunteer.
When we first arrived in Austin, earlier in the Summer, a curiosity sparked my attention. Every time I turned on the radio, I heard the words ‘breast cancer’ frequently. Apparently, the Austinites were gearing up for October, to play their part in the global breast cancer awareness campaign. Wow – how powerful this particular month is, all over the world! Literally, every time the radio was on there would be different events and fundraisers announced. One particular event called ‘Fight Like a Girl’ was mentioned a lot. Like most people, cancer is a subject close to my heart, and the thought was not long in crossing my mind to head to this event. There was a little doubt though, being the newbie on the block, I would be on my own twiddling my thumbs and trying not to look like a ‘billy no mates’.
Not good at twiddling my thumbs for long, I called the organiser to offer my help as a volunteer. Once she got a drift of my accent, she was soon very keen to talk about Ireland and the UK, her travels there long ago, and how much she loved it. Opening up, she tells me all about meeting Billy Idol when she was in England and how she refused his advances! Of course, stunned, and keen to meet the woman who had turned down one of our 80’s icons, we arranged to meet up that night!
The ‘Fight Like a Girl’ event is on the other side of town. Given that driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road had the habit of sending me dizzy, more so, when other roads are literally on top of other roads, I settled down to the journey with Cynthia, my trusted ‘Sat Nav’. Halfway there she decided to go off duty! It was one of those occasions where you begin to think to yourself, if one more wrong turn is taken, it’s time to go home. Sure enough, just as the last corner was turned, there was a huge billboard sign of a woman wearing boxing gloves, with her fist in the air. Yes, no thanks to Cynthia, I arrived!
When walking through the venue, it was one of those occasions that you get from time to time, that this is leading up to life-changing experience, and sure enough, this incredible sensation can’t be left out of the story because it was true. I meet the wonderful Cherie (who actually did look like someone Billy Idol would have gone out with) and it all took off from there. In meeting up with amazing people like Cherie, there was a positive excitement, a knowledge that this was the start of a new journey and soon after, I became a ‘Breast Cancer Resource Centre Volunteer’.
Austin’s volunteers participate in an induction course and are then assigned roles. I was given ‘Ouch Cushion’ duty at Miss Merrill‘s house, and my second role was to help arrange a number of nighttime events, including the big one ARTBRA Austin, a fashion show with breast cancer survivors as models which is held yearly and is a super exciting event.
Some of the Ouch cushion ladies are models for the event. Kathy, who was sitting to my right during that sunny afternoon, was chatting about her morning and about the mastectomy fitter who came to her house to fit her for a new breast form and bras. She talks about getting an extra special bra for when she is modeling on the ARTBRA Austin catwalk. The phrase ‘mastectomy fitter’ was a new one, on asking more questions Kathy explains that after her mastectomy she had decided not to have reconstruction, and so she now wears a breast form (prosthesis) along with a mastectomy bra. There and then, a light bulb moment arrived. This was for me!
Frankie was thrown into the car, well nearly! Arriving home, Mr Google, was put to work straight away ‘Mastectomy Fitting Services in Ireland, mastectomy home visits, Mastectomy Bra’s Limerick, Clare, Tipperary. Amazingly, no one was doing this depth of service at home in the way that Kathy described it to me. After days spent Googling like someone possessed, my children would have starved only for my husband fed them, everything began to neatly fall into place.
Within weeks, I drove to Waco, Texas and started the first course of training. I didn’t just love it. I really, really LOVED it. The company’s slogan ‘making women feel and look beautiful after breast cancer’, said it all and made an immediate connection. Training to help make women feel and look beautiful could not have made me happier. Meeting women who had recently undergone breast surgery and meeting women who had a partial mastectomy or lumpectomy years earlier was very beneficial. It added to the experience of dealing with all the personal and individual issues that can arise from Breast Cancer Care. In talking to those who have just experienced surgery, this was found to be an invaluable comfort and confidence builder in being able to rely on stories that confirmed a brighter and more certain future awaits.
Intermediate training at Waco, was soon followed by advanced level, and of course, thoughts of returning to Ireland to offer such a specialised service to Irish women, going through similar, was an immense motivator.
The coincidences that arrived in Austin that year had me leaving the State of Texas, so grateful for this wonderful opportunity. I say a sad farewell to my wonderful ‘Ouch Cushion Ladies’, everyone at the volunteer centre, and also those amazing people that were with me whilst training. The family arrive back in Ireland, with not just an idea but completed training certificates, stock, a website, social media pages, business cards, and most importantly, all the positive energy to make it happen.
Within a week of being home, the spare room that held high chairs, buggies, and all the other kid-related items was emptied and turned into a shop. Meeting with all the different local organisations and institutions focused on Cancer Breast Care, help me on my way to creating a unique service that has supported many throughout Munster and beyond, for nearly a decade now.
For many Valerie’s Breast Care is just one of those first organisations you can reach out to when picking up the pieces and moving on from what has been a particularly difficult time. I’m so glad to have this opportunity to extend a very warm welcome to everyone.
Valerie Murphy, Valerie’s Breast Care
Mobile: 085 160 1783
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‘Original article was written by Valerie for Happy Magazine in 2019.’