My experience: Kathy Sheridan’s cancer diary

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

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

Plus, I’ve just had my tear ducts agonisingly and expensively poked at with bendy needles to stop the weeping. (It fails. The eyes eventually fix themselves as will almost everything else).

I peer at the screen and Majella’s nervous face and respectfully wonder about the Late Late ’s message. No, I’m not feeling positive right now – so sue me.

In the cancer context, someone described hair-loss as “the outward disrobing of the person you saw as you”, an external confirmation that things may never be quite the same again.

I’ve forgotten almost everything about this part-year, but not the first visit to the wig shop, the hair roughly chopped then pulled into a hairnet before the laying on of ratty hairpieces.

Driver-sister and I assure each other this is just a fun day out, sure isn’t a good wig something we always wanted, really. Human or synthetic? Long or short? Curly or straight? If only your own damn hair was that malleable. But as the hairnet goes on, I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror; she looks stricken.

In a hospital cafe, I sit beside a 30-something Munster woman. The giveaway is the headscarf and the sores around her mouth. I ask lightly how she’s doing. “Ah sure I’m terminal”, she says. “They’re saying a few months. The older kids are kinda prepared but the four-year-old, like . . . well, two years ago, I had great hair, down to my waist, and I know it’s mad, but what really upsets me is that she’ll have no memory of me looking like that – what I see as me – except what she sees in photographs.”

That theme of loss, represented by hair, is recurring. An academic having her first treatment chats happily until someone admires her short, chestnut bob. At that, she wells up: she’s been having her lovely long mane cut in phases to ease the transition.

Many people don’t know that Tallaght’s oncology day ward offers hope for hair. The cold cap treatment is part of the service.

On infusion days, you wet the hair, pull on a jockey-style cap, secure it under your chin, then plug the thing into a freezer. Essentially, the ice around the follicles acts like a missile defence system against chemo marauders.

Women are having their chemo here to avail of it. It is neither pretty nor comfortable but it works well for several women and at least one man in my sight-line. But not for me, damn it. I do retain a tiny fringe, though, which is handy.

Major apologies to everyone I ever sniggered at who was, or is, a martyr to heartburn. Regard yourselves as vindicated. Four scorching, sleepless nights and days are also a powerful early lesson in the No Medals for Suffering mantra preached by the oncology nurses. Being a newbie, with blinkers, I presume it’s something that must be borne. Finally, driver-sister dials the ward. A prescription is faxed to the pharmacy and I am scorch-free within the hour.

Wednesday is my infusion day because Dr Janice Walshe is there. Most people end up in thrall to their oncologist – the dependency is almost baby-like – but Janice Walshe is a find.

Her communication skills are peerless, she gets her own coffee, wears great dresses, is appropriately cheerful, holistic in outlook, and never, ever forgets.

Cancer treatment has many “tails”, big and small, which must be monitored but the frequent blood tests may also highlight odd patterns that reveal unrelated, even pre-existing conditions . She chases them up like a forensic sleuth.

Contrary to expectation, the oncology day ward is a rather comforting place. Occasionally, someone has a spectacular reaction to a drug. Or an elderly man, infuriated by machines pinging and life in general, croaks out an angry “F**king shoot me NOW!”.

The more usual drama is the struggle to insert a cannula into collapsing veins. That woman up to her right elbow in a basin of warm water, trying to coax the veins, is usually me. Eventually I get a port inserted beneath the skin below the neck, an alien-looking thing but one that triggers high-fives on treatment days. It save a lot of time and ouches.

The nurses – with staff numbers falling, working at an obviously more frenetic pace as months go by – manage to remain humorous and professional even as patient numbers expand in a finite space.

After the bloods drama, comes the wait for results. If there is infection (to which chemo patients are susceptible), there will be no infusions. Everything about that is painful. No-one wants to go there.

Meanwhile, Phyllis brings tea and toast and people confide their troubles. “I said to the daughter ‘I have to sit down to peel the potatoes’ and she shouted ‘who needs to sit down to peel potatoes?’ ,” sighs a woman.

Finally, I’m hooked up to the drip and a trio of drugs. I’m always conscious of the Docetaxel, the liquid poison seeping slowly into the vein, bent on mass destruction. By 3pm, or 4pm or 5pm, Driver-Sister has negotiated the most badly-designed car-park in history and paid the scandalous €2.50 an hour.

Then I’m home to doze to the fire and to binge on Harry’s Law . Kathy Bates never makes you feel bad about yourself.

The time is filled with appointments, medicines to remember, signs to monitor, lessons in self-injection (didn’t see that coming either). The first thing they give you going into chemo is a thermometer. It’s not for show.

By now, I’m a day ward veteran, encouraging the newbies, hearing my old Pollyanna voice in their plans to get superfit, to devour dense and worthy books, to exist on organic broccoli, to continue minding the seven grandchildren. Some might even manage it.

Never assume.

Most can recite in great technical detail what ails them. Some record every tiny detail in a little notebook. My blinkers are so well established, I can’t even recall what kind of cancer I had. Ruth Prichard whisked it away months ago; it’s gone. Janice Walshe is ensuring it doesn’t come back. That’s my mantra.

But one thing I know: the C-word still packs a powerful punch. Though the survival rate for breast cancer is more than 80 per cent, in our house it translates into a blizzard of flowers and nourishing dinners left discreetly on the doorstep, warm brown bread and lemon drizzle cake, Jo Malone candles and perfumes and cosmetics chosen with infinite sensitivity, great jazzy scarves and little white beanies, parcels of funny, random things made of ginger (for nausea), chocolate, wit and love. And a tsunami of texts, cards, handwritten notes and Mass bouquets (anyone kind enough to send an appeal into the universe for me and pay good money for it is my friend).

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