This is the article I wrote for the paper I work for as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Every year over 2,900 women in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer and last year I became one of them.
My journey into the roller coaster world of cancer began, like it does for many women, with a visit to Breastcheck's mobile unit . As I walked up the steps on that bright June afternoon I wasn't overly concerned as I'd had a mammogram two years previously and I felt fit and healthy. Even the comments of the lovely nurse that she was going to refer me to the Breastcheck clinic in Dublin didn’t ring alarm bells and it wasn't until a few days later, when I gave into the temptation to Google, that I realised that the dimpling in my right breast , which I had taken for cellulite, was in fact a symptom of breast cancer.
For someone who had grown up in the era when cancer was referred to in hushed tones as 'the Big C', confirmation that I had breast cancer saw one of my greatest fears realised.
I had already lost dear friends to cancer: brave, funny, spirited, courageous women so I knew that 'having a positive attitude' wasn't going to make any difference as I faced into this new unwanted challenge. But it would make the journey easier, both for me and those surrounding me, so one of the first things I did was to prioritise my mental health. I had no qualms in asking my GP to prescribe anti-depressants and sleeping tablets so that I could concentrate on the job in hand - having treatment and getting better. I knew too that the simple pleasures I always enjoyed would help me. The garden became my healing place and Fudge, our Labrador, accompanied me on my daily walks no matter what the weather.
Right from the start, I didn’t see myself as ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ cancer, because if strength of spirit made any difference, so many men and women would still be alive. Instead, I entrusted the job of getting rid of the cancer to the wonderful medical team who looked after me in The Mater Hospital, making up my mind that the only way cancer could defeat me would be if it changed my outlook on life.
Naturally I was worried about the future . As it turned out, the words of Charles Dickens proved true yet again as ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
It was the worst of times as I had an illness, which despite the great strides in medical treatment, still kills over 800 of women in Ireland every year. I was facing into what newspapers like to describe as ‘gruelling’ treatment involving chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. I was going to lose my hair and my breast. I was scared and didn’t know what lay ahead.
It was the best of times as I experienced the overwhelming love and support of my family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, people I’d met through work, and ‘virtual friends’ whom I’d got to know though a shared interest in photography. I was sustained by kind words, thoughtful messages, phone calls, cards, flowers, home baking and endless cups of coffee.
It was the best of times as I discovered how good our health service can be when it works, how dedicated and caring our nursing and medical professionals are.
Breastcheck is one part of our often maligned health service which really works. It is wonderfully patient-focused. Every woman who receives a positive diagnosis is assigned a nurse who keeps in contact with her throughout her journey, from the first day she is given the devastating news that is about to change her life, to the day she finally walks from the clinic, having completed her treatment.
Right from the start, I believed my surgeon Prof Malcolm Kell and oncologist Dr Cathy Kelly when they assured me that they were going to be able to treat me. My Breastcheck nurse Siobhan was never more than a phone call away. All I had to do was to get through my treatment and see the light at the other end of the tunnel.
That, at the time, seemed easier said than done. I was embarking on my cancer journey without a map to guide me or a dictionary to explain the new language. I was entering the new normal without even knowing what it was.
Some people make the case that those who receive a cancer diagnosis suffer from a kind of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Everything we take for granted is suddenly pulled from under our feet.
I am naturally an optimist but I found my Pollyanna cloak whipped away as I fumbled to make sense of this new world I had entered.
0ften, the the over-worked staff in our hospitals don’t have time to prioritise the
emotional well being of cancer patients and most hospitals don’t have oncology psychologists.
Thankfully there are many organisations dedicated to helping cancer patients negotiate their treatment. The Irish Cancer Society provides a nurse led phone service, they have volunteers who share their own experiences with those undergoing treatment, and they publish information booklets. The Gary Kelly Centre in Drogheda and the Cara Support Centre in Dundalk are valuable resources for cancer patients while the North Louth Hospice and Homecare also does wonderful work in supporting patients having treatment as well as those at the end of their journey.
I was lucky that, as my medical team had promised, I found my treatment ‘do-able’. While I did have good days and bad days, the good days far out-numbered the bad days. I had few side effects from the chemo, apart from losing my hair, of course. And, somewhat surprisingly as I’d always had long unruly curly hair, I wasn’t at all upset about losing it. I took the philosophical view that it would grow back - and it has.
On the days I was tired, I took it easy. I rekindled my love of reading. I met friends for coffee and chatted to them on Facebook. I kept up to date with the news. I planted bulbs in the autumn so that I would have something to look forward to in spring when I was recovering from surgery.
On the days when I was feeling sorry for myself, I reminded myself that I was lucky. Lucky to live in a first world country with access to oncology services. Lucky not to be living in Syria, or Iraq or Afghanistan. Lucky to have such wonderful family and friends in my life.
I still continue to consider myself lucky. I have had my treatment and am free of disease. I know that 30% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer go on to develop secondary breast cancer, for which there is currently no cure.
But always I remind myself that I am lucky to be alive. I know how our lives can end in the blink of an eye. Too often I have written about people who left home to go to work or school or on a night out, little knowing that they would never return alive.
There are two questions which people often ask me about my year of living with cancer.
The most difficult part, I tell them, was coming to terms with my own mortality. Ever the optimist, I had put that on the long finger, planning to get my head round it in another twenty or thirty years or more. Even now, I’m still with Woody Allen when he says: ‘I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be around when it happens.’
And the lesson I learned is the power of kindness. How much the little things matter, the text message to see that you’re doing ok on chemo day, the lifts to treatment, the offer to dog walk when there’s no one at home, the fresh home baked scones delivered with a warm smile.