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The three faces – cancer, chemo and recovery

Three years cancer free. Let the celebrations begin

Enda – before, during and after treatment.

My husband is three years free of cancer. I know it’s usually the five-year milestone that comes with celebratory fanfare but I just couldn’t wait. We’ve taken stock of all that has happened in the past 36 months – acknowledging the bullet that my husband dodged. Letting out a “phew” while simultaneously muttering, “that was close”. It’s been a sobering journey to say the least.

From the photograph, Enda optically appears the sickest in the middle picture when in actual fact he is just weeks away from death in the first picture.

Here he is riddled with cancer which is deceptively hidden behind the smile such is its chameleon nature. His bald head in the middle picture makes him easily recognisable as a chemo patient in the midst of a punishing regime to survive.

The third picture belies the truth of the fight that he has endured.

Fifth gear

My husband’s first year cancer-free anniversary date was not celebrated in case it would maliciously return. This first year is really spent in fifth gear – hot footing it from one MRI scan to the next bone marrow test to a CT scan to bi-weekly blood appointments – always anxiously waiting for positive results. There is a deficit of laughter during these 12 months with tension and anxiety presiding most days; we are economic with our smiles too.

Cliodna and Enda.

My husband has spent this first year doing his best to just stay alive. He has the binary choice of either fighting this face on with his “west of Ireland” thickness or sitting back allowing cancer to hijack his resolve and fast tracking him to rock bottom. Thankfully he chooses the first.

My husband’s second year of recovery allows the gears to shift down a little, more like cruising at a cautious third. It’s peppered with hospital re-admissions, setbacks, coming off tablets only to go back on them a month later. It follows a snakes and ladder recovery pattern. Laughter and smiles are now thankfully beginning to re-appear on the daily menu.

Return to normal

My husband’s third year of recovery shows a return to the normal cadence of our family life. The foot has been taken off the throttle a little – shoved now into cruise control allowing relaxation to permeate. Holiday plans are made and met. He looks more like himself than he ever has. A picture of health. His three-year nightmare is not visible to the eye of a stranger. His tablet box is shrinking, down to a meagre 10 pills a day but what is not shrinking is his pain.

He wears his pain with dignity

Pain has been the main headline act since this gig started and shows no sign of abating. It’s ad nauseum. His intractable hip pain has now got new partners in crime – his shoulders. Withdrawal from steroids has exposed this unwelcome pain and it’s an arch enemy he could really do without. But he wears his pain with dignity, silently wincing when he’s sitting down into a chair so as to not draw attention to himself but I can see the atrophying effect it has on him mentally as well as physically. It certainly separates the men from the boys. It’s his next battle to overcome.

His consultant reckons he has avascular necrosis (AVN) but as this is not in her expertise, she is referring him to orthopaedics. AVN is basically death to the bone caused by excessive use of steroids and chemotherapy – the pay-off for life. So, how is it fixed? An orthopaedic surgeon friend of mine said “joint replacement”. Obviously it would be nice to have a solution that isn’t so surgical and an appointment with orthopaedics will determine what the best route is for my husband to go down next. Remedies are there which is encouraging and hopeful.

Clinical study

My husband is determined to get fitter and is participating in a 12-week clinical study for patients who have had cancer to link the importance of exercise with recovery. He was given a FitBit – aiming for 6,500 steps daily in the first week with two 30-minute high-intensity sessions graduating up to 10,000 steps daily in the final week with four high-intensity sessions. It’s a tough ask but he is an assiduous student. He has started swimming twice a week – not a natural swimmer, he is slowly building up his pool strength – constantly pushing himself on the challenge. His goals are not always met but it has given him a focus on exercise and the physio’s results should make for interesting reading.

My husband is still waiting to get his third round of infant vaccinations. He was due to get them last week and mentioned to his doctor that he just didn’t “feel right” – lethargy being the main culprit. Results showed a few markers that shouldn’t be there. Nothing pernicious, just a viral infection. It does still amaze me how open he is to infection even three years down the road. Hopefully, it will pass and his inoculation programme will be completed. He might even get a lolly pop.

Enda and Clíodna – ‘I hope we’re at the tail end of this monstrous journey.’

Rawness of memories

Thankfully life, as we knew it, has come back to wrap its comforting arms around us again. We’re back now complaining about the most innocuous things in life once more which is surely the litmus test for normality. My lachrymose days are hopefully a thing of the past – resilience now replacing anxiety where possible. The rawness of some memories have evaporated into the ether and my husband and I can reminisce without fear of upset. However, some memories still have a “Do Not Resuscitate” sign attached such is their associated darkness.

I spent a wonderful weekend in a meditation centre on the west coast of Ireland – Dzogchen Beara in west Cork. I would highly recommend it or the equivalent for anyone who needs a stillness in their life. After four days, I came back fully charged, ready to take on whatever comes my way.

We are truly privileged that our family unit is still intact. It just wasn’t his time

I hope we’re at the tail end of this monstrous journey. I feel so blessed that I still have my husband with me, that he was able to spend another three Christmases with us. That he was able to witness our youngest son turn into a teenager, our oldest son graduate college and our oldest daughter get engaged. My husband will be able to walk our daughter down the aisle – an image I wouldn’t have thought possible three years ago and I’ll do well to hold it together when I see them both. We are truly privileged that our family unit is still intact. It just wasn’t his time.

In my first writing, I wrote that my husband “was no longer the captain of our ship”. This is no longer the case. The captain is back. He has his duties and I have mine. Balance has been restored once more and this return to the unexceptional is most welcome.

Clíodna’s blogs can be found on and on