'I will be on chemo for the next year'
MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:That word ‘cancer’ is always a big sucker-punch
IT WAS EARLY July last year, about two weeks before taking on the Irish Hospice Cycle Challenge from Geneva to Nice, a mere 523km, when I finally convinced myself I should see the doctor.
In the previous four or five weeks, I’d had a gum infection, a throat infection, then got bad bruising on my torso, for no apparent reason. I was also feeling very tired. I was in training for the cycle, losing some weight, and thinking, “This is great”. But that was actually another sign of a sickness coming on, more than anything else.
I suppose I was typical of most Irish men. Who else would go around with these big bruises on their torso without telling anyone, thinking “maybe” I should go to the doctor? Then one morning, July 6th, I woke up and found black blisters inside my mouth.
That was the last cue to make the call.
Having made the appointment, the doctor saw me the next morning, took a blood sample, and said he’d ring me once he got the results. So he rang me that evening, told me I needed to get to St James’s Hospital. My wife was actually away, but my son convinced me to go straight away.
After some more tests and a few hours’ wait, the nurse called me into a room, and told me she thought I had leukaemia. “When will you know?” I asked. “I know,” she said. “We’ve actually started treating you already.”
I had just turned 47, considered myself reasonably fit and healthy, and here I was being told I had cancer – for the second time.
Less than two years earlier, just before Christmas 2009, I discovered a lump on my left testicle. I think Irish men think they would die of the embarrassment rather than the cancer. And again, I kept putting that off too. But I told my wife about it, and she rang the doctor and I was sent for an ultrasound.
As it turned out, I had cancer of the right testicle, in the very early stage. So it was a brilliant catch. Two days later, I had the surgery, the implant, and that was more or less it. I was back on the bike fairly soon too, and that summer, I did the 2010 Hospice Cycle Challenge from Dublin to Paris, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
That word “cancer” is always a big sucker-punch, no matter how many times you hear it. But even after the testicular cancer, I sensed the leukaemia was more serious.
The first night is the roughest, but after that you just have to get on with it. The nurses, everyone in St James’s, the haematology department and especially the Burkitt Ward, were just outstanding, and helped me stay positive throughout it all.
They gave me plenty of information from the start, which is terrific because when I first heard the word “leukaemia” I figured there was a good chance I would die. But there are different types, and as it turned out I had acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APML). It’s rare, but quite treatable. If you don’t die in the first couple of weeks, they expect an over 85 per cent success rate.
But if you bleed into an organ, or haemorrhage at that stage, you will die. While the blood platelet count is normally between 200-400, my count was 11. So they were pumping blood into me, trying to get me up to 70. Once you get over that little hurdle, they can get a good handle on it.
The illness, obviously, put everything on hold. I called the Irish Hospice Foundation to say I couldn’t do the cycle to Nice. However, I was determined to get myself healthy again and get back on my bike. If you aren’t daunted by the treatment, there’s something wrong with you, but I think the most important thing is to stay positive.
Having the family support makes a huge difference too. My wife, two daughters (aged 21 and 19) and my son (aged 14) were just as positive, and I’m also the youngest of a family of eight. To have a close family like that to rally around you makes an enormous difference.
I had been introduced to the Irish Hospice Foundation some years earlier. Both my father and mother died at home, in 2005 and 2006, with the aid of the hospice, and that’s when I realised the terrific work they do. It was great for us, and great for my parents.
So I took on the Dublin-Paris cycle in 2010 as a way of giving something back, especially as most of the money raised goes towards palliative care for children. My good friend, Noel Gavin, was on board too, so we did it together. The other great thing about the cycle is hearing all the other stories of how the foundation has benefited other people.
I did have to give up work with the leukaemia, however. I had just taken over the running of Kiely’s Pub in Mount Merrion, with my business partner, the previous November. But I had to step away. I didn’t want to be worrying about it either. I just wanted to focus on getting myself well.
I ended up being isolated in the ward for about six weeks, which was very hard. My nephew brought me in a disc with 50 movies, and I think I watched one. I remember trying to watch the Tour de France too, but you just can’t concentrate. You can’t even read a book. After 10 or 15 minutes you’d be somewhere else.
Of course, you think about what caused this, and why me? With APML they’re not really sure. It’s the acute form of leukaemia and comes on very quickly. I had none of the exposure issues, radiation, heavy metals. I don’t smoke, and would consider myself the normal social drinker. I wouldn’t be stressed out, either, so really I don’t know what brought it on, other than it came on very quickly.
I still consider myself very lucky. Between the cancer of 2009, then 2011, I’ve had my own personal little 9/11. The mad thing is having had cancer before, I didn’t want to be bothering the doctor again, foolishly, last summer. But the lesson is simple: if you’re not feeling well, get yourself to the doctor straight away.
There was no way I could work in the months since, but I’m at the stage now where I can start looking at something again. It probably won’t be the pub business. Maybe something with more regular hours. I’ll be on the chemo tablets for the next year, maybe 18 months, but I am starting to feel normal, or what I’d call normal anyway.
The doctors don’t really use the word “cured”, it’s more about maintenance, although I would consider myself cured. But they have given me the all clear to take on the cycle, as long as I don’t go mental on the training. I won’t be letting that happen, because this one I want to really enjoy.
I had always enjoyed cycling, mostly mountain-biking around Ticknock, places like that, where I grew up. So I’m really looking forward to the cycle. I’ve still got a few months to build my fitness up, but these cycles are meant to be taken at your own pace, a bit like life itself.
In conversation with IAN O'RIORDAN
HOSPICE CYCLE CHALLENGE
Full details on how to sign up to the 2012 Irish Hospice Foundation Cycle Challenge from Lyon to Nice (July 22-28th) can be found at hospice- foundation.ieor tel: 01-6793188. To sponsor David, see mycharity.ie/event/david_donohoe/