I Survived Cancer: 4 Readers Tell Their Stories
Cancer is scary. But there's also a positive side that doesn't get much air time. We speak to four women who’ve battled tough times and come out the other side.
One word, two syllables. It’s neither a film, TV show, book or song, yet it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Although cancer is no longer considered a death sentence, we often choose to whisper it, imparting a ‘he who shall not be named’ reverence. These days, the disease has been kicked off its pedestal by revolutionary screening methods, smart drugs and innovative, less invasive treatments.
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, the disease has once again been brought to the forefront of our minds. “While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages,” says the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
The good news is that survival rates are on the up; research is ongoing, with frequent new finds and exciting clinical trials, and those living with the disease are doing so outside the confines of a hospital.
If we were to believe Web MD, every symptom is a surefire symptom of some kind of cancer. But what exactly is it? Cancer is simply an overgrowth of cells that won’t stop multiplying. It’s caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors and, according to scientists at Johns Hopkins University, a very big dose of bad luck. “Many cancers are attributable to random mistakes in cell division which are completely out of our control,” they say.
A diagnosis is life-changing. Priorities shift, resilience rises and strength comes in spades. Chances are, we’ve all been touched by the disease either directly or indirectly, and if it’s the latter, it can be difficult to understand exactly what that person is going through – sometimes we’re just afraid to ask.
We caught up with four cancer survivors who set us straight – yes, it’s an extremely challenging time, there are good days and truly dire ones, but the moral of their story is, not every cancer tale ends badly.
Karen, 23, Kildare, had leukaemia
“When you join the cancer ward you realise that everyone is going through the same thing, it puts in all into perspective.
“Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with leukaemia. I’d just done my Junior Cert, and at the time, it was difficult to get my head around it all. My symptoms were very vague; I was feeling faint, bruising easily and I’d lost my appetite. We thought I might have anaemia because I’d been quite tired, but nothing like the enormity of what was to come.
“From the start I vowed to be positive and that definitely helped me through. Even telling my friends about it – the fact that I was optimistic made them a lot more at ease. When I saw my parents upset, I knew that I had to be strong for them, too.
“You definitely go into survival mode – my MO was to make the best of a bad situation. I made great friends in hospital and I definitely look back really fondly on my time there. I know that sounds weird, but there’s a great community spirit in Crumlin. When you join the cancer ward you realise that everyone is going through the same thing, it puts in all into perspective.
“After biopsies and tests, I started chemo. I got a few days off here and there but I was in hospital for about five months altogether – I became a fixture! My friends always called in, which was brilliant, and then my parents, my family, my cousins, everyone was so good.
“I was lucky in a way. I mean, if cancer is to happen at all, it happened at the perfect time for me. Most of my friends did Transition Year and so, by the time September rolled around, I got to start fifth year with them. And sure Transition Year is supposed to be all about new experiences – that’s exactly what I had!
“Cancer definitely changed me for the better, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take an emotional toll. It’s hard when friends you meet in hospital, who’ve been through treatment with you, pass away – you do think, ‘why them, why not me?’
“I was one of the lucky ones, I’m still here, able to tell my tale – you have to remain optimistic. Up until I got sick, I was convinced I wanted to do something in finance but I changed my mind and decided medicine was for me; I was so inspired by all the doctors, nurses and kids that I’d met along the way. When I went back to school, that decision kept me very focused. Medicine was the beginning of a new journey for me – I felt that I’d turned my illness into something positive.
“I’m in fourth year now and being on the wards, sometimes you can see yourself in patients – you can recognise their fear or their lack of understanding, and you know that all they really want is for someone to talk to them and help them understand their illness in real terms.
“I’m much more aware of the people aspect of medicine. The level of empathy I have is unique because very few of my class peers have been through a similar experience. It’s great that I can take a bit of that and bring it with me through this next chapter – it’s a part of who I am and I don’t want to ever forget it.
“I got the all clear when I was 21. Touch wood, so far everything’s been going great and I genuinely believe I’ve come through the whole process unscathed. I love to able to tell my story and to tell people not to lose hope.”
Kerry, 20, Cork, had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
“Last February, I found a lump in my neck. My doctor initially thought maybe I’d an infection or the flu or something so he said he’d keep an eye on it. Soon after, I saw another doctor – he took one look at it and sent me to the hospital for a biopsy. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had the lump removed. Last summer, I had chemotherapy from May to July and then 10 sessions of radiotherapy in August.
“I was finishing up second year of college, so I was allowed to skip my exams and do essays over the summer – if I passed those, I could continue into third year. And I did! I’ll be graduating in October with a BA in Archaeology and English.
“During treatment, my family and boyfriend were a huge help. It was harder with my friends, they couldn’t really understand what I was going through – they’d never met someone with cancer before.
“I’m about to start a postgrad in fashion buying and merchandising. I love clothes. I used to dress up for chemo; it made me feel so much better. I’d make an effort to put on make-up and a dress or maybe a playsuit. It kind of makes you feel like, ‘I can do this!’ – I definitely think it makes a difference. If I went in bare-faced, wearing tracksuit bottoms, I wouldn’t feel as strong. I’ve seen a couple of women doing it, dressed up to the nines.
“The UCC Cancer Society was brilliant – last year I did the Relay for Life race. It fell on my birthday and it was wonderful to do the survivors’ lap. Having that society was great – everyone there had been touched by cancer in some way so there was a whole lot of understanding.
“Starting my new course is very exciting step for me. I was toying with the idea of doing Heritage Studies in UCD but I read an article in STELLAR about careers – one of the girls was in fashion buying and I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do!’ I get my wages and most of it goes on clothes!
“My scans and things have been all good so I’m focusing on getting on with my move up to Dublin. I’ll be dressing up every day to head into college too! When you look good, you feel good – it’s a big confidence booster for me, I feel I can take on the world. Dressing up definitely helped when I lost my hair, I’d put on my nice clothes and think, ‘I rock this – I’m not worried about being bald!’”
Roisin, 31, Dublin, had nasopharyngeal carcinoma
“My cancer was very rare – nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a head and neck cancer. I was 19 when my symptoms started – I had really bad pains in my ears and I was also very lethargic. Then there were headaches; they were pretty bad. When I found the lump in my neck, I had numerous blood tests and a few biopsies. The doctors were able to figure out that there was cancer there but it hadn’t originated in that area – it had almost metastasised. After a couple more tests involving cameras up my nose and down my throat, they found the tumour.
“I was relieved, in a way, to get the diagnosis – I was sick of moaning and sick of telling people I felt sick. It was still a bit of a shock as I didn’t know any young people who had cancer – that was something grandparents or even parents got. I had heard of chemotherapy and radiotherapy but I wasn’t sure what they involved; that was quickly knocked out of me! The radiotherapy to my head and neck area was difficult, I found it hard to eat so I stayed in St Lukes hospital in Dublin for a while – they were fantastic.
“Back then, cancer was kind of stigmatised but the thought of dying never really entered my mind – I just knew I was going to be okay. My family are really positive and they’d buoy me up and that really helped, they’d be like, ‘come on now, you’ll be grand’.
“It doesn’t end when you leave hospital, post treatment is the start of the emotional stuff – you’re like, ‘Oh holy God, what just happened?’ It was hard to get back into my friends and pretend nothing had happened. I remember I’d lost a load of weight and people would come up to me and be like, ‘you look amazing, you got so thin.’ I looked emaciated!
“I do feel that I am a better person for having cancer. I’ve gone on and helped others – I went back to college and studied to be a psychotherapist. I also joined the Dublin Dental Hospital’s editorial team, where I contributed to a book. Guest lecturing radiography students is another interest as well as volunteering with Arc.
“I’ll continue to support the places that helped me through my illness. I’ll never forget Look Good Feel Better (lookgoodfeelbetter.ie) when I was in hospital – they showed me how to use make-up when my hair fell out. When I started doing all these things, it made sense, it made me realise, there are good things that can come out of having cancer.
“It’s an area that I want to work in, but maybe not all the time either, you don’t want to get too immersed in cancer – there’s more to life.
“In my professional life as a therapist, I come across some people who’ve had cancer but I don’t talk about my own experience – in therapy it’s all about the other person. I do think that there are some universal issues between cancer and other problems people might have and you can relate to that.
“I still go to my oncologist every six months. It’s not like my second home or anything but it’s familiar and it’s definitely not scary. I do get a small bit nervous going back for appointments and think, I should juice or something!
“It’s funny, some people say, ‘because you’ve been through all this I bet you don’t take shit any more’, and I’m like, ‘um, no, I do worry about stuff!’ I tell people I’m a survivor. I try to live in the present and be mindful, I think that’s really important.”
Sinead, 23, Limerick, had Ovarian Germ Cell cancer
“I didn’t really have symptoms until the tumour was quite big – then it was just pain in my stomach. I’d been to the doctor a good few times. They certainly don’t expect to find ovarian cancer, so they weren’t looking for it. At one point, they thought maybe I was trying to get out of going to school.
“Finally, I was sent for an ultrasound and blood tests and from those I was diagnosed and sent straight to Crumlin. I was in hospital for a month at the start – I had surgery to remove one of my ovaries and then began chemo. After that I was up and down from Limerick every month for about six months.
“At the time, I was fully aware of what was going on. The staff in Crumlin were great – they kept nothing from me and broke it all down into easy-to-understand language. But then, after a few years have passed, you just kind of forget about it all.
“I lost my hair… Well, we shaved it off. That went down grand with my 10-year old self because I was always a bit of a tomboy anyway – it didn’t seem like a big deal.
“I didn’t end up missing too much school. I was tired, so I was late some mornings, but there’s a school in Crumlin – they kept me on my toes too!
“At the moment, I’m on my Master’s work placement in the Trinity labs at the Coombe Hospital – I’m actually researching ovarian cancer. I did biochemistry and biomedical diagnostics in college. I do think my cancer diagnosis informed my choice of degree. Back then, everything that happened to me spiked an interest in a clinical-type career path.
“Having survived cancer does make you a little bit more cautious of your health in general – we’re not indestructible. You’ve got the check-ups every six months or every year and that definitely serves as a reminder. Fertility is not really something you give much thought to in your teens but, for me, it’s something I’m mindful of since the surgery.
“Through Crumlin I got to go to Barretstown, which was an amazing experience, and through Barretstown, I found out about CanTeen Ireland. I went on a lot of trips with CanTeen, and many of my friends now would be those I met through that organisation.
“We’re a positive bunch and we’re able to make fun of cancer and all the stuff we’ve been through – instead of crying or getting depressed about it, you’re able to laugh and make chemo jokes and bald jokes! It’s weird but wonderful.
“You don’t want your cancer survival to consume you, but on Daffodil Day, I’m the first one to rock the yellow flower – and I’m always nagging people to give blood. I also hope to get back to Barretstown to volunteer. Shortly now when I hand in my thesis, I’ll be looking for a job in research… all offers considered.”