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.