Domini Kemp: ‘When you are told you have cancer'

My main goal was to embark on an extra healthy course of action, which hopefully was going to make everything more effective

Domini Kemp: “ I have tried to keep things as normal as possible.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Domini Kemp: “ I have tried to keep things as normal as possible.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 01:00

This year did not begin well for me. I was diagnosed with adult whooping cough in January and then, soon afterwards, found a small lump in my left breast. My GP immediately referred me to the Breast Clinic in St Vincent’s Hospital for triple assessment. Then, very sadly and very suddenly, my mother Val passed away. The week after her funeral, I reluctantly went in for the assessment and there was a part of me that already knew it was not going to be good news.

My husband, Garvan, came with me to get the results. We sat down with the surgeon, Enda McDermott, and he confirmed that the lump I had found was in fact a tumour. At that stage, it looked as though treatment would be limited to a lumpectomy and radiotherapy. We thought that even though it was “bad” news, it was going to be pretty manageable as chemotherapy and mastectomy were not on the cards. So, although it was a terrible shock, we left there knowing we could cope and even grateful and relieved that it wasn’t worse.

Unfortunately, a week later, further pre-op investigations revealed two more tumours in the same breast. At that stage, the kitchen sink was thrown at me test-wise, and although the bone and CT scans were clear, the next big question was whether the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.

I remember friends and family being happy when the bone scans were negative, but as we gradually learned to accept, each stage brings different tests and different results. Most of the time, you can’t take the “good” news to mean good news in the normal sense. It just helps accept the reality and then move on to the next stage of treatment and testing. You still have cancer.

When you are first told you have cancer, you immediately want answers. You want to know: “Am I going to die? What are my chances? How bad is it?” I didn’t ask those questions because I was too embarrassed. However, at some point, I did ask how long it was going to take from start to finish and was told “a year”, at which point I started crying. It felt like far too much time to give to something I didn’t want in my life.

First-hand advice
I was given chemo first – six goes in total, every three weeks. A friend who had been through it all the previous year had very kindly talked me off the ledge the night before I started. Once I was given some first-hand advice, I felt much better and have since tried to do the same for anyone else about to start chemo. It’ll be okay. Yes, there are times that it’s grim, and the nausea is wretched. But I made it my mission that instead of getting “match fit”, I was going to get “chemo fit”. That meant keeping up with work and exercise and going on a healthy eating binge like no other.

I had had a malignant melanoma back in 1998, had surgery and was treated with the drug Interferon. The melanoma was blamed on the fact that I was born in the Bahamas, with Celtic skin in an era when no one wore sunblock. I was lucky, but the fright made me look into the idea of staying healthier in life and looking at things that were “anti-cancer”. I read books by Dr Andrew Weil and Dr David Servan-Schreiber and followed advice where and when I could. I was no angel, but I was certainly aware of the dangers, so when this diagnosis came, I knew what I wanted to do.

For the most part, that meant lots of juicing, knocking back wheatgrass shots and using turmeric, garlic and ginger as much as possible. Kale became an everyday vegetable, green tea my new tipple.

Naturally, I would break out and celebrate if out with friends, but I tried to eat better 95 per cent of the time and keep as active as possible, trying to get at least 30 minutes walking, running or cycling every day. No excuses. For a few days right after chemo, I would be wiped out and then would slowly bring myself back up and then try to double up and do 60 minutes of exercise to make up for the days I missed. The website was a great inspiration to keep moving. I do believe my diet and the exercise were major contributors to my wellbeing and that this in turn helped my treatment.

I also went to a nutritional therapist, Patricia Daly, who is an integrative practitioner. Again, many of the things she suggested were things I was aware of, but I found her advice and knowledge invaluable in making me stick to a good regime.

My main goal was to embark on an extra healthy course of action, which hopefully was going to make everything more effective but which wouldn’t jeopardise the treatment in any way.

Because my stamina was not what it had been, I had to adjust schedules and become a lot more realistic as to what I could pack into a day. This added pressure onto those around me: friends, family, colleagues, my children and especially on my husband, Garvan. But we make a great team and we stayed tight throughout. My sister, Peaches, was also great as she is my business partner, so had to shoulder a double burden.

I had the mastectomy a couple of months ago and had an immediate reconstruction. I think the results are very good. I am currently going through six weeks of radiotherapy. After that, I really hope to be done.

My life is definitely going back to normal – in fact, throughout the treatment, I have tried to keep things as normal as possible. Being on cyclophosphamide and taxotere meant my hair fell out. But these things are temporary. I would advise anyone going through it to take their nausea tablets and remember that it will pass.

I would also suggest that you do something nice after each chemotherapy session, whether it’s going for a massage, seeing an old friend or pottering in your garden for a while. Just having something to look forward to after each one helps.

Finally, allow people to help you. They want and need to play their part in helping you get well. Don’t deny them this chance to show their support for you.