My experience: Kathy Sheridan’s cancer diary

Diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2013, Kathy Sheridan describes a rollercoaster year of treatment and recovery

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

“It’s not a great three-part TV drama full of moments. It’s a long grind, like a slow car crash that will last five years and then, hopefully, we’ll get out,”
– Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders’ s husband

April 2013
Oncology Day Ward, Tallaght

Assume nothing. Nothing. No, Mrs Glib, you can’t possibly know 450 women in Waterford who had the very same thing as Katty here and who are all flyin’ now.

Katty sucks on a chunk of pineapple – it’s supposed to kill the foul, metallic taste for a few minutes – and wiggles her weirdly numb toes. Is that another toenail whispering sayonara ?

A tentative rub of her left eyebrow . . . hmmm, that’s gone too. Meanwhile, there’s eye-liner leeching into her lashless, watery eyes, making them redder than a hellhound’s.

Her chemo-addled brain is throwing up random thoughts: Why is there blood in my nose? Why does no-one ever mention the usefulnesss of eyebrows and lashes and nosehairs for keeping stuff from getting in your eyes and nose. Why won’t the little wig flaps in front of my ears lie flat? Will I ever be able to taste a cup of tea again? It’ll taste like wheel nuts, but I really want one of Phyllis’s massive scones.

Would Phyllis have a knife sharp enough to glide between Mrs Glib’s ribs . . . ?

Such stabbings are rare, which is surprising. Perhaps it’s because cancer makes you kinder. Or because you lack the energy. Or because chemobrain renders you incapable of remembering who the stabee is.

A lifetime ago, four months actually, you were sniping at politicians, yelling at fatheads in BMWs and infuriating editors by writing way-too-long articles. Six days before Christmas, you hurtled into a Tesco car park to buy a tree, clocked the Breastcheck mobile unit and – bizarre but true – suddenly remembered you had an appointment right then for a routine mammogram.

January, 2013
Breastcheck clinic, Dublin 4

Around 25 of us sit waiting for a mammogram review. The silence is charged. A woman is reading OK! upside down. Another is knitting, clinky-clank. A 30-something exhales angrily, scrolling through her iPhone. Dear faces swim across consciousness – daughters, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, beloved friends . . .You didn’t tell them you were coming here; they may kill you.

In the lobby, the driver/companions are staring into space, reading fitfully, trudging off for coffee. Is it worse for those who will be the first to bear the burden of your news?

Do they know how lucky they are, as their women reappear, pulling on coats with a “Phew, find me a decent coffee”? The seismic plates of their worlds had shuddered, then settled again.

A handful of us remain.

The gears shift noticeably as a soft-spoken nurse takes us separately on a melancholic little journey, each new step a subtle warning. On the ultrasound screen, the dark expanse is obvious even to me. The biopsy test will take a week, but no-one denies there is something there.

Nurse Ruth Conboy shepherds me into a calm, pretty room and brings tea. I’m dry-eyed, forever Pollyanna, confident I’ll be the one to dodge the chemo. But I want my husband. He’s been sitting out there for a long time. Long enough for him to guess that the axis of our little world is shifting.

It takes a year – only last week – to recover my fact-seeking radar and Google breast cancer.

I count 15 types to start with, and that’s before we get to grades and stages. The grade of cancer (an indicator of the level of aggression and how quickly it might spread) is very different to the stage (an indicator of the size, spread and so on). But each will determine the chemotherapy drugs (there are more than 50), the combination and dosage. Sometimes just one is used, more often a combination of two, three or more. Some people escape it altogether, some have four cycles or six, or multiples of that.

Many include Docetaxel, that most aggressive, crude and efficient of cancer drugs. The effect is cumulative, therefore the number of cycles, dosage and combinations make a difference, physically and psychologically.

So save your fables of flyin’ women who have the very same thing, Mrs Smug, unless of course they’re actually flyin’. For real. Without wings.

I never wondered why me. Because, duh, why wouldn’t it be me? (That works for your lottery odds too). I thought a) how/when will I tell the dear ones, and b) I will die if my hair falls out.

Perspective is easily found. The High Court judgment in Marie Fleming’s right-to-die case is among my assignments this week. Twenty-five years of terrible suffering culminating in paralysis and a plea to be allowed to die, while watching your children spiral into a state of permanent grief. Versus a few months of chemo?

There is no big desk between the breast specialist, Ruth Prichard, and me. She is sensitive, straight, unpatronising, meticulous. She even draws a picture.

All I hear is “invasive”; “Grade 3” and “chemotherapy”. The last one stings (my hair, my hair . . . ). Surgery dates are discussed for a week to 10 days hence, depending on beds. I sheepishly mention health insurance. That gets me a date in St Vincent’s Private about three days earlier.

Everything to this point has been on the public health service, free, a dreamy vision of what the whole service might be in a parallel universe: swift, caring, efficient, sensitive. Faultless. As is the surgery. I wake up in a private room way above my insurance grade, city lights twinkling, convinced I’m in Paris. Nice drugs, doc. I’m thinking of doing a little happy-dance around the bed when my dear ones arrive.

Months later, I see the gone-viral video of Deborah Cohan, a Californian doctor facing a double mastectomy, who leads the surgical team in a dance round the theatre to Beyoncé’s Get me Bodied . The online plaudits are almost unanimous: “Awesome”, “spirited, “brave” and of course, “inspiring”.

It unsettles me. If a middle-aged, male doctor does a rumba round an operating theatre before his bilateral orchiectomy, should men find that inspiring? Or plain weird? Each individual has to do whatever it takes to stay sane, but if the primary purpose is to inspire other women, where is it taking us?

In the autumn, when Majella O’Donnell, her radiant, pre-chemo face still graced with lashes and brows, goes on the Late Late Show to have her head shaved – and raise a staggering €600,000 for the Irish Cancer Society – my hair is still awol. But much more annoyingly, so are my lashes and brows and normal skintone.

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