My Health Experience: ‘I never felt angry about getting cancer’
The doctor said he’d get me out of cancer within a year. That’s all I wanted to hear
Stephen O’Brien in his shop in Killarney, Co Kerry. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
Before I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I wasn’t ill or in pain. I was getting diarrhoea on and off but nothing severe and there was no blood in my stools. I thought I was in good enough health.
My diet has always been good. I never really ate a lot of red meat. But over Christmas 2012, I got quite a lot of diarrhoea and decided to do something about it. My GP referred me for a colonoscopy at the Bon Secours Hospital in Tralee.
I was in the recovery area afterwards. The doctor came up to me and said the colonoscopy was inconclusive and asked me to call in the following Monday. This was a Thursday. I knew something was up.
That Monday, I was told there were lesions on my bowel and that the area around my bowel was cancerous.
To get the diagnosis was a relief as much as anything else. The doctor said he’d get me out of cancer within a year. That’s all I wanted to hear.
I am 46 and there is no history of bowel cancer or any cancer in my family. I asked the doctor what he would do if he was in my situation.
He said he’d go to Micheál Ó Riordáin at the Mercy hospital in Cork. Ó Riordáin told me that a lot of people with my symptoms would have ignored them, so I was lucky my GP referred me to him. I had a consultation with him and he did another colonoscopy as well as a Pet scan and a CT scan.
The scans were just to confirm the cancerous area and to help with making a schedule of treatment.
I was told I’d have five bouts of radiotherapy at Cork University Hospital and, a week later, I’d have surgery to remove the cancerous area of the bowel and rectum.
The radiotherapy was no problem and had no bad effect on me. When I had the surgery, I think I was under the knife for seven hours. A bit of my colon and bowel were cut out.
I recovered quickly from surgery and had a month’s break before chemotherapy started. Thank God I had no sickness at all from it. I had tiredness but I continued working all through it. I was able to get the chemotherapy in Tralee.
I had an ileostomy bag for about nine months after the operation. It’s like a colostomy bag, only it comes out at the end of the small intestine. It was attached to me all the time to collect waste. I had a stoma, which is an opening in the side of the abdomen.
Some people find this the hardest part of the whole thing. But you just have to get on with it. Once you get used to it, it’s fine. It’s under your clothes so no one can see it. After a while, I forgot I had it. Everything went back to normal after the reversal. I had no soreness.
When the bag is reversed, you’re given a diet. It’s hit and miss really. Some things agree with you, some don’t. I haven’t really made any major changes to my diet. Plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables are recommended. I had always eaten three or four portions of fruit and vegetables every day anyway.
Sick coverMy wife and I are self-employed. We run curtains and blinds shops. I got no sick cover, which I think is totally unfair.
But I wanted to work. When you’re ill, you need something to keep yourself occupied. I’d have gone crazy at home thinking about my cancer.
I have one daughter, Aisling, who was 14 at the time. I’m involved in the GAA and my wife is involved in drama. The last thing I wanted was for Aisling to hear about my illness at school or around the place. I wanted to be in control of what she knew all the time. I sat her down and told her exactly what the doctor had told me.
She was upset, but once she knew what was going on, it took a lot of pressure off her. I think that, down the line, it’s good for Aisling. I’m sure I won’t be the only one involved with her who will get cancer. It’s something she’ll deal with a lot better when she’s older.
Thank God I don’t have a death sentence at the moment. I have to think of a lot of people who got cancer after me and who are no longer with us. It’s just so unfair that any child should get cancer.
It’s been a year since March that I had surgery. The cancer is no longer there but the doctors won’t say I’m all clear. It’s very difficult to say to anyone that they are all clear.
For me, the thought of it as something that could come back will always be there. But the longer I go on being healthy, there’s less likelihood of it. As my surgeon said, at least I’m being watched. There could be people out there with cancer who haven’t a clue they’ve got it,
I never felt angry about getting cancer. There’s no point. You’d only stress yourself out more. People give out about the health service. I found it outstanding and I don’t think that’s because I have health insurance. I was confident from the very beginning that I was going to get through my cancer.
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