Saturday 1 October 2016

Journeying to a new normal

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.

As for the future, I am, as my favourite singer/songwriter Warren Zevon said in his last interview on the Letterman Show before his death from lung cancer in 2002, determined to ‘enjoy every sandwich.’

Friday 15 August 2014

Liebster Award - Part 2

For the second assignment associated with the Liebster Award,  I am answering the eleven questions posed by Doris from Inspired Follies

1. When do you write your blog posts and how long does it take you?
I have to admit to being a most disorganised blogger and, of late, had been thinking of abandoning it until Doris nominated be for this award. I usually write it in the evenings, after work. The photographs will have been taken in the preceding weeks (or even months) and I wish I could say I spend ages honing and crafting my sentences but I never seem to have time for that.

2. Which television programme/s do you watch regularly?
I watch very little television apart from the news.  I did watch 'Last Tango in Halifax' and 'Portlandia' recently on Netflix and enjoyed both.

3. Describe the last meal you cooked.
Yesterday's dinner.  I'm teaching my son how to cook before  he goes to college so have been looking up inexpensive and simple recipes. I married two recipes 'All-in-one baked sausages with lentils' from Sainsbury's 'One Pot' cookery book with the poser sounding ' Toulouse sausage pul lentil' stew from Donal Skeehan's 'Homecooked'. Basically, it's good quality sausages and chopped  bacon, browned in a pan, and then cooked with chopped carrots, celery, pepper, onion, puy lentils garlic, dijon mustard, red wine, stock, bay leaves, and theme, and seasoning. Very tasty.

4. What is your favourite item of clothing?  The yellow aran cardigan which my mother knitted me when I was a teenager.  It no longer fits me but it means a lot to me.

5. Your all time favourite book and why you have chosen it? That's  like asking a parent of a large family to name their favourite child! I have so many books that I like.   But if I had to choose one (and possibly because I happen to have a photo of it on my computer!) I'd pick 'To Kill A Mocking Bird'.

6. Describe your usual sleep pattern - i.e time to bed up, how many hours, any middle of the night wake ups etc. I usually go to bed around midnight and get up around 8am. I am a sound sleeper although our cat Toffee sometimes wakes me up as he meows outside our door looking for food during the night.

7. Which line from a poem/book/play or famous speech appeals to you most? '
The opening lines of 'A Tale of Two Cities' which still seem relevant today.
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only

8. The city/town you have enjoyed visiting most? My favourite town to visit is Ballycastle on the north Antrim coast while for city it's a tie between Paris and Rome.

Ballycastle, Co Antrim
9. What is the last film you went to the cinema to watch?
It was so long ago that I can't remember, although I'm guessing that it was the first 'Lord of the Rings'.
We now watch films on tv thanks to Netflix and Apple tv.

10. My current favourite nail polish colour is silver.  If you paint your nails, what colour do you usually choose? Pink

11. If you could award your own Oscar or Bafta to an actor/ tv performer, who would you choose and why?
The Irish actor Brendan Gleeson who brings a wonderful presence to his performances and who also has a great sense of social justice.

Monday 4 August 2014

Liebster Award - Part 1

Doris at Inspired Follies very kindly  nominated me for a Liebster Award. The Liebster Blog Award is a blogger- to- blogger nomination system which promotes blogs with less than 200 followers. 
The award takes three parts: 
For the first I have to write 11 random facts about myself, then I have to answer the  11 questions which Doris has posed for her nominees and lastly I have to nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 questions. I already  know that I won't be able to find 11 qualifying bloggers who haven't already been nominated but here goes with 11 facts about me.

1. I grew up on a diary farm and I loved cows so much that when I was 8 years old it was my ambition to marry a farmer with a 100 cows.

2. I failed  on that one as I married a former city-dweller.

3. I am tone deaf and am a total  crow - I don't even sing in the shower but I love music.

4. The first book I read on my own was 'The Secret Island' by Enid Blyton.

5. According to Irish folk lore I have the cure for chicken pox as my mother had the same surname as my father before they got married.

6. My favourite cuisine is Italian.

7.  I cannot imagine living without pets - at the moment we have a Labrador called Fudge and a cat called Toffee.

8.  I can speak Irish, Ireland's native language, although not as well as I'd like as it's not widely spoken outside The Gaeltacht areas.  I also studied Italian at school and although I've forgotten most of it, I have enough to get by on holidays.

9. My favourite place to holiday abroad is Italy while my favourite place for holidays at  home is the north Antrim Coast.

10. I haven't  kissed The Blarney Stone and have no desire to do so.

11. Photography is a passion and I rarely go out without a camera. Of course, when I do, I usually  spot a great missed photo opportunity! I do a photo a day (almost) project  on the photo sharing site 

Sunday 3 August 2014

Catching Up

Summer has been most delightful so far this year.  Lots of sunshine, warm days and bright evenings. It's  been the ideal summer for holidaying at home, for enjoying the Irish countryside, for spending time in the garden and going for evening walks.
I've been neglecting my blog because it seems a shame to sit  indoors at a computer when I could be enjoying the warm sun outside or relishing those special long summer evenings.
So here is a quick collage to catch up with both June and July.

In June I enjoyed the excellent Co Louth Agricultural Show which was held just down the road in Bellurgan Park, we discovered the beauty of Connemara on a short trip to the west coast (which really deserves a post of its own) and the garden began to bloom.
As the warm weather continued in July, I loved spending time in the garden, taking my breakfast out before going to work in the mornings.
The perfect summer evenings enticed crowds to Gyles Quay where local teenagers had great fun jumping off the pier.
Even those days with showers brought their own beauty with rainbows.
The teen is learning to cook in preparation for  leaving home and going to college in September - he treated us to a delicious meal of turkey and mozzarella meatballs.
Doris, who has a very interesting blog over as Inspired Follies  has kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award, even though I've only been an occasional blogger of late. I'm deeply honoured by her nomination and will fulfill the tasks in the coming days. If you  haven't read Inspired Follies, I suggest you pop  over there and have a look.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Chasing Rainbows

I haven't gone away. I've been chasing rainbows.  Finding beauty in a glorious Irish summer, enjoying warm days and bright evenings, spending time in the garden. And just when I think 'this is perfect', I remember that, for countless others, life isn't perfect.  My heart is sad for those families who lost loved ones when the plane went down over Ukraine, sad for the families living under siege in Gaza,  sad for the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, for the Christians forced from their homes in Iraq, sad for the Irish families who lost children in tragedies of unbearable sadness.
Yet life goes on. And there is still beauty to be found in the rainbows which follow the rain. I hope those who are struggling to survive will one day be able to enjoy such beauty once more.