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

All for me.

And zilch for my buddy who has a horrible, chronic affliction that happens not to be called cancer. She may be a tad bitter, but hey, I tell her, you have great hair.

This month, match-sister and I get the regular call to a pre-rugby lunch in Limerick with a bunch of Munster players’ parents. Struggling out of bed, I get a preview of what extreme old age must be like and a glance in the mirror suggests strong kinship with the red-eyed iguana. Wig and game-face on, I shuffle into the restaurant and find it’s all about me.

There are cards and meaningful hugs and demands to put your wallet back in your pocket and a presentation of flowers by Marie O’Callaghan, Donncha’s mother. Match-sister notes it’s the first time she has seen me cry.

Maybe it’s the culmination of something powerful that has been building for months; this universal galvanising of love, warmth and generosity that is the beauteous, bounteous best of us, the bit that is evident in the sustained, selfless, under-the-radar calls from people with busy lives, to Pat, Sarah and Mary Kate, “minding” them for me. But of course it’s not universal. And the handful who let you down are all the more wounding.

A month of recurring infections and bed-days. Dear ones come and lie on the bed and tell me family secrets. It’s almost worth the horrors.

Jenny Reilly, my beautiful niece, is getting married to Quito. I’ve been living on Chicken Bovril and Robinson’s lemon drink (they nearly get past the metallic taste) and Dominic West is on the guestlist. A match made in heaven.

The Chicken Bovril “diet” means my new blue silk dress – hah! – has to come down a size or two.

No sooner done, alas, than I get an irrational craving for thick white sauce. Gallons of it. Followed by fat curries. It all tastes like wheel nuts but I’m desperate to taste anything. Come the wedding day and Dominic, the blue dress refuses to zip up.

What a perfect day I’m thinking at around 11pm, as the bridal couple dance a funny flamenco. My ankles are elephantine. That’s new.

See May.

We hide away for a week in Martyn and Jean Turner’s wisteria-covered house near the Canal de Midi. Several très amusant acquaintances are lurking within 30km, inviting us to come sip and whinge, but since no humans of Irish extraction are allowed to look at me, husband and daughter must make their own fun.

On the return, it’s just Sarah and me on the 90-minute drive back to Carcasonne airport. I regally insist she takes the Montpellier direction. She protests politely but obeys The Patient. Eighty minutes later, I’m having second thoughts (it’s called chemobrain, child of grace) and we’re doing 165kmph in the other direction.

As she sprints ahead into the terminal with 10 minutes to take-off, she yells : “Take off your scarf, they might be nicer to us”. But . . . but, you swore yesterday my hair was great, I wheeze . . .“I lied,” she shouts.

The Ryanair staff practically carry us to the plane. The new-minted Michael O’Leary would be proud.

“The radiotherapy will be an ’oliday compared to the chemotherapy”, says the happy, Middle Eastern radiologist. “You will be coming for nearly seven weeks.” Could we make it a Monday, I wonder. Turns out it’s every day for nearly seven weeks. Who knew ? And he was right.

My day ward adventures aren’t over; the Herceptin infusions – a true miracle drug – will continue every three weeks ’til March. The Anastrozole cancer pills – another miracle – will be a daily habit for years. So when the first month’s prescription comes to €80, it raises alarm bells – nearly €1,000 a year for a generic drug?

Other pharmacies are better: €56, down to €44 (Boots, Liffey Valley). But a swift email reveals that two Newry pharmacies sell it for £9.60 and £5. We cross the border and get five months’ supply for about €30. The Guardian mentions that it sells in England for £1.99.

There are two phases to cancer treatment, says psychotherapist, Suzy McMullan at Arc, the voluntary cancer support organisation.

The first is the physical journey, which is all mapped out. You just get that train, as my friend Patsey describes it.

The second begins when the main treatment is over and suddenly, there’s no map. This may be when I find myself sobbing in a Dundrum cinema for the Somali pirate who kidnapped nice Tom Hanks in Captain Philips and certain children laugh and I get unreasonably cross. Psychologically, it seems, cancer and I have unfinished business.

The blinkers were firmly on while I was being cut open, infused with powerful, poisonous chemicals, subjected to dangerous rays and tottering through the vicissitudes that ordinary life continued to throw up. They had to come off sometime.

So no, Mrs Smug, Katty is not that invincible, robust countrywoman of her imagining, but she’ll be grand. Suzy and I talk in Arc’s lovely, calm house; normality is restored. (And children, that Somali actor has won a slew of awards. Hah! Who’s crying now?)

My hair texture resembles the dog’s but it’s properly back. The lashes are tiny but definitely present. The brows are annoyingly sparse but the nails are looking like their old selves. I nod off at odd hours but my energy is returning in waves. Match-sister makes Christmas dinner. There are upsides to this thing.

January/February 2014
It’s almost over. Driver-sister and I have seen all the seasons on the road to Tallaght. We started in snow and finish in springtime and – to these (still slightly watery) overwhelmingly grateful eyes – even the raging storms are beautiful.

Back at work, my first assignment, by some odd synchronicity, is to interview Corrinna Moore, the late Marie Fleming’s remarkable daughter. Perspective is ever near, if you know where to look.

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