Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Dealing with illness far from home

Serious illness abroad can be very isolating, especially if there is a language barrier

Dawn with her husband Chris in Luxembourg

Fri, Nov 15, 2013, 00:00


Dawn Prendergast

Myself and my husband both worked as fund accountants for a large multinational bank, but got itchy feet around the same time in 2008. We thought of going to Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, but ended up settling for the rather less glamorous destination of Luxembourg.

I don’t think I could have picked this tiny country out on a map, but we were offered good jobs and that decided us.

We planned to stay for a year or two, but as friends and former colleagues started to lose their jobs back home, we decided to stay where we had relative job security and a decent standard of living.

Flash forward three years and we had married, bought a house, and more or less decided to make this country home as things had gone from bad to worse in the financial sector in Ireland.

But a month after I celebrated my 29th birthday, news came that would have been life-changing no matter where we were in the world. I had been diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer. Our world fell apart.

Something as serious as cancer at such an early age is a shock, but to have to deal with it in a strange country was more than we felt we could could cope with.

Language problems

As we both work for American companies, we had never felt the need to learn Luxembourgish (a notoriously difficult language), and our French was rudimentary.

We had very little knowledge about how the healthcare system operated for those suffering from a serious illness. Would we have to pay for my surgery and subsequent treatment? Would I receive any income while I was off work?

Thankfully, we quickly found the Luxembourg healthcare system is second to none. Two days after my diagnosis, I had surgery before beginning a gruelling 18 rounds of chemo. Most of the medical bills and my wages were covered by the state and my employer, which was a massive relief. We could still afford to pay our mortgage for the 10 months I was off work.

Experiencing serious illness while living abroad can be very isolating, especially when there is a language barrier. The support groups were not conducted in English, so we felt very alone dealing with the diagnosis. English-language information packs and pamphlets were also unavailable, and we felt quite helpless and uninformed at times.

Our lack of knowledge about the protocols to ensure bills were reimbursed and sickness benefit was received meant things moved much slower than we would have hoped.

A mother’s care

But I was very lucky that my mother, who had had breast cancer herself 10 years previously, travelled over to care for me. My husband couldn’t take time off work to accompany me to the weekly chemo and subsequent radiation appointments, but she was there.

Being so far from home, Skype and social media became an absolute necessity, a way for me to keep in touch with friends and family when I was too ill to travel.

I am still receiving treatment, but almost two years after surgery, life is almost back to normal.

In hindsight, one of the first things we should have done when we emigrated was learn the language and research the healthcare system. These things fall too far down the list of priorities for newly arrived immigrants, but would have made dealing with my illness much easier.

Coping with an illness like cancer is difficult no matter where you are, but as more and more people emigrate, dealing with it while far from home is a life challenge an increasing number of us will face, often without a solid support system in place.