When cancer comes back: ‘The news was horrendous. I was totally in shock’

Cathy Lynch had cancer 15 years ago. After treatment, she had thought it was all behind her

Cathy Lynch and her husband, John, with their sons Conor, Liam,  Seán  and his fiancee Lydia Mooney.

Cathy Lynch and her husband, John, with their sons Conor, Liam, Seán and his fiancee Lydia Mooney.

 

Discovering you have cancer is, without a doubt, a terrible blow, but to survive the disease and its gruelling treatment only to be diagnosed again must be extraordinarily hard to deal with.

When a cancer spreads from the part of the body where it started (the primary site) to another area, it is called metastatic cancer, as Aileen McHale of the Irish Cancer Society explains. “If you have had a diagnosis of cancer before, it may come back in another part of your body” – this is known as recurrent cancer – “or may have already spread when you were first diagnosed,” she says.

“Where a cancer has spread from the original tumour, it can be called a secondary cancer. This is named after the part of the body where it began. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is called secondary breast cancer. You may also hear terms like ‘bone mets’ or ‘liver mets’. These mean a cancer that has spread to your bone or liver. ‘Mets’ is short for metastasis, which means cancer which has spread.”

I remember it started with a pain in my right breast

Cathy Lynch, unfortunately, understands exactly what metastatic cancer is, as she was diagnosed initially with cancer 15 years ago and, after surgery, treatment and more than 10 cancer-free years, thought it was all behind her. “I remember it started with a pain in my right breast,” says the mother of three grown-up sons. “There was also a bit of puckering, and when I went to see my GP a few weeks later with an unusual headache, I just happened to ask him by chance, before I went out the door, if I needed to have the breast checked.

“After examining me, he knew straight away there was something wrong and sent me to Dublin for a triple assessment. My memory of that time is that everything went very fast, as there didn’t seem to be any question about whether or not it was cancer – and before I knew it I was told that I needed a mastectomy and asked if I wanted reconstruction.

“I agreed to this, and I remember being extremely sore after the surgery and, about two months later, had chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. I was having treatment for the best part of a year.”

I really hit a wall when it was all over because during treatment. I kept my feelings at bay

Although the 57-year-old, who lives with her husband, John, was shocked at her initial diagnosis, she remained positive throughout her ordeal, and in 2006 she believed the worst of it was over.

“It was a very tough process, but the physical side of it was soon over, and the hair began to grow back as well,” she says. “I remember people asking me how I was doing, and I would say that the body was fine but the head was only just catching up.

“I really hit a wall when it was all over, because during treatment you are so busy, going from one appointment to the next, and because the boys were young and needed looking after I kept my feelings at bay. But as soon as it was over, the reality of what I had been through really hit home, and I found it very tough.

“I went to Dóchas cancer support, who were fantastic. If it weren’t for them I don’t know how I would have coped, as it was the only place where everyone understood what I was experiencing. No one told me that it would all be fine and that things were great because they were not – and unless you have been through it, most people don’t really know what to say. It is no one’s fault, but it can feel isolating without the right support. But I eventually got through the emotional side of things as well and was discharged from the oncology unit, which felt both amazing and scary, as I had felt quite safe when I knew I was constantly being checked.”

Cathy, who lives in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and works as a practice manager in a doctor’s surgery, was cancer free for 11 years and living life to the full when she began to experience an unusual pain in her side.

“I wouldn’t say I’m neurotic, but I am a bit hyper about my health since my initial cancer diagnosis so am very aware when something is wrong, and in 2016 I had a pain in my side that didn’t feel right, so I went to see my GP,” she says.

“He sent me for a scan, and it revealed that I had cancer in my liver and my bones; I was told that it was metastatic. This news was absolutely horrendous, and I was totally in shock.

“I tried to play things down and keep spirits up initially until I had the full story, but it was so hard. However, my oncologist was very calming and said there were plenty of options they could try. I was put on a hormone treatment, which thankfully began to work, and it stopped the growth of the cancer. I was in pain but not too much and had pain relief, so I was able to manage it. I decided that I was going to concentrate on being positive and getting on with my life.”

The treatment still seems to be working well, as the tumours appear to be “under control”, and Cathy, who has regular appointments and scans, says staying strong and taking each day as it comes is the way forward.

If you have a bad day, don’t worry, the next day may be better. You are allowed to be annoyed, upset and angry

“I am well watched, and the medication is working,” she says. “I am feeling good and living my normal day-to-day life. Of course, I do get tired more easily and get sore at times, and although it has been a slow journey I do my best to just keep things on an even keel.

“I have no mad commitments and am taking everything one step at a time, which works well apart from when I am coming up to an appointment, as this can feel as though I have a gun to my head, but most of the time I am positive.

“My advice to someone else who has just been told they have metastatic cancer would be to try not to listen to too many other people other than the professionals, as everyone has an opinion. Go with your own pace, and if you have a bad day don’t worry: the next day may be better.

“ You are allowed to be annoyed, upset and angry. My way is to keep going and to not lose faith, as there are lots of options available and new treatments being developed all the time. I hope that I will continue to be well, and I am looking forward to the future.”

Aileen McHale agrees and says receiving a metastatic cancer diagnosis can be a very worrying time. “It can be overwhelming and frightening to hear that your cancer has spread to another part of your body or that your cancer has come back after treatment,” she says. “You may be experiencing feelings of shock, disbelief and grief, and talking to someone about your diagnosis can be a real help as you go through this journey.

“Cancer patients and their loved ones can access free one-to-one counselling at affiliate cancer-support centres, through the Irish Cancer Society. And there is more information about all of this on the Irish Cancer Society freephone support line, on 1800-200700, where our cancer nurses can advise and refer you to supports available to you. We also recommend that you gather information about your metastatic cancer and discuss your treatment plan with your consultant.”

Most common sites and symptoms of cancer metastasis. Illustration: iStock
Most common sites and symptoms of cancer metastasis. You can find further information on metastatic cancer at cancer.ie

About metatastic cancer

- The most common parts of the body that cancer spreads to are the bones, liver, lungs, and brain.
- Thanks to significant advances in cancer treatment, more and more metastatic cancer patients are living for many years with a good quality of life.
- There are no current statistics on the number of people living with metastatic cancer in Ireland today.
- There are a number of supports available to people affected by a metastatic cancer diagnosis within the hospital in which they are being treated, and also in the community. These include free counselling, survivor support – where they can discuss their diagnosis with a trained peer volunteer (someone with a similar metastatic cancer diagnosis) – and metastatic cancer peer groups.

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