An Indomitable Spirit

When confronted with severe trials, we have two choices — sink or swim. Breda Daly decided to swim, bike and run

By her own admission, in her 30s Breda Daly, an executive account manager at Janssen, the pharmaceutical company of Johnson & Johnson, wasn’t living the healthiest of lifestyles. But when her mother was tragically killed by a drunk driver, she was prompted to overhaul her lifestyle, transforming herself from an inactive smoker into a champion triathlete.

“It was just one of those life-changing moments,” she says. “I decided life was short and you need to look after yourself. About six months later I gave up cigarettes. I took up sports and started doing triathlons, and as I got quite good at that I started looking after my own health a lot.”

Going from strength to strength, in 2016 she qualified for a major international Half Ironman and was set to take part in the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Tennessee the following year. However, it was at this peak of her physical fitness, aged 44, that she was dealt a second blow.

“I had probably had the best year of my life, health and fitness-wise,” she says. “Two days before Christmas, I was in the shower and felt a tiny lump in my breast. I thought it couldn’t be cancer because I was feeling so good – I had got a personal best two weeks’ beforehand.”

But a month later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was unbelievable – I hadn’t told anybody because I was convinced I was fine. I was trying to explain to doctors that I was going to do these World Championships, while they were telling me about chemotherapy.”

After undergoing surgery and commencing six months of chemo, Breda was warned she’d have to put her life on hold for a year. But her existing athleticism, combined with decades in pharma and psychiatry, left her determined to remain as active and healthy as she could through treatment.

“Everyone said there’s nothing you can do,” she says. “You won’t exercise or even get up during chemo, and you should eat whatever you want, like chocolate, as you’re not going to be eating much from sickness. Because I’d worked with diabetes, I thought that would be the worst thing I could do for myself, plus I knew that going from qualified for the World Championships to no exercise whatsoever would be unhealthy for me.”

Getting a group of people together, Breda walked every day, something she found helpful for both body and mind. “I got through the chemo really, really well, walking, doing some run races and cycling 80km. I actually did a Half Ironman a week after I finished my chemo. It was great for people to be able to see that I was able to do so much on chemo.” As well as remaining active, Breda improved her diet an extra “five to ten per cent” by cutting out all sugar and eating organic, as well as using organic skincare products.

She found herself leaning on lessons she’d learnt during her 18 years at Janssen. “At Janssen they promote a lot of health and wellbeing for yourself. We had done mindfulness and, I found that when I got cancer, the mind element was bigger than the physical – everything you hear is very negative and you have to try and filter that. I found that when I woke up at night, I was able to use the different techniques we did at work to focus on breathing and try not to worry.”  

Experience with the healthcare industry also empowered her to be her own advocate. “I remember thinking at one point, ‘I know how doctors think,’ because I worked with them so long.

“When I asked them what I could do to help myself, they all automatically said, ‘Nothing.’ A nurse said to me, ‘You just hand yourself over to us.’ She meant it very kindly, but I thought, ‘This is my life, I’m not going to hand it over to anyone.’ I had done a lot of work with patient support groups which helped me know that there are some things you can control.”

Her proactivity was well-received by her treatment team, who enjoyed watching her progress. “When I first met my consultant he was understandably busy and I was one of his many patients – all of whom are living and dealing with cancer differently. For me, I was determined to fight this disease with the right treatment all the while remaining as physically active as I was before my diagnosis. The oncology doctors had never seen someone go through cancer and chemo and be able to do as much physically as I’ve done. On the day I finished treatment, my consultant told me I was the one of the most positive and proactive patients he’d ever met. He’s now encouraging his patients to do a lot more than he would have done before – to walk, to try to run.” They are now writing an academic paper about Breda and her results.

Testing positive for the BRCA1 gene and having an 80 per cent risk of further breast cancer and a 60 per cent risk of ovarian cancer, Breda had precautionary surgery. Never one to do things by halves, she was the first person in Ireland to have both breasts and ovaries removed in one operation, and four weeks later won a cross country race.

On returning to her work in dermatology and rheumatology, Breda found her professional practice enhanced by her experiences. “Being a patient has definitely changed the way I do my job,” she says. “I’m much clearer around patients, I have more empathy and I can understand the expense of having an illness, which I wouldn’t have known before.”

A year on, Breda requalified for the triathlon she was forced to postpone. Coming second in her age group across a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run (or 2K swim, 90K bike ride and 21K ride) in the first qualifying race she took part in, she’s now heading to the 70.3 World Championship in France in September 2019.

“What I like is that I came from being a smoker and not looking after to myself to qualifying for the Championships, then had the cancer, and I gained more from it than I ever gave it,” she says. “It actually helped me to requalify better – I came third to qualify in my age group the first time, I came second this time. I learnt more about myself than I ever gave this year, in terms of relationships, sport and work, which was just amazing.”

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