My trip around Ireland with a brain tumour
Two days after a receiving a dream job with a travel guide, I got a diagnosis that changed my life
Bernadette Fallon: ‘I still look at the beauty of Ireland with all of the wonder that I discovered that day in the Botanic Gardens, and think how ironic it is that I was going blind before I saw it’
Would I like to spend a month travelling around Ireland and writing about it for a best-selling travel guide? Would I what! It was the dream job for a freelance journalist, and a chance for me to spend some time back home, having left Ireland to move to London eight months previously.
But two days after I got the commission, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. My blood pressure was so high I nearly blew the machine off my arm. I was going blind. I needed surgery. The good news was that they wouldn’t need to go through my skull to remove the tumour. I would have transsphenoidal surgery instead, which meant they would take it out through my nose. Yes, that was the good news.
I had left Ireland not so much to find myself, but some respite from the headaches that had been plaguing me for years. I felt constantly sick. My body shape was changing. So I left my job as a magazine editor in Galway and went travelling around Asia, Australia and the US. It all made me feel marginally better, but still not quite right. I decided I’d go to London for six months, earn some quick money temping, and see a doctor.
An endocrinologist in London looked at my enormous hands (I hadn’t been able to wear my rings for years), big feet (I’d gone from a size 6 to size 8 shoe) and swelling body. Despite the fact I’d been on a diet of cornflakes for months, desperate to lose the weight that inexplicably kept piling on, I looked like a short female version of the Michelin man.
He took a blood test and explained, very sympathetically, that I had Acromegaly, caused by a tumour under my brain. Once I had the surgery to remove it, I would probably then need a course of radiotherapy and most likely lifelong medication. He suggested that maybe I shouldn’t move back to Ireland, where doctors had missed the tumour for the 10 years I’d been under their care.
Only now, with this new travel guide gig, I was going back to Ireland. As devastated and worried as I was about my diagnosis, I was excited about the trip. It was May, the weather might be nice, I could go around the country being a travel writer, see my family and, best of all, I could stop off at various friends along the way, catch up, have fun, tell them about the tumour.
An MRI scan to establish the size of the growth would be scheduled for about a month’s time, the consultant explained. So that gave me four weeks to research the chapter, return to London, have the scan, and the surgery. Sorted. I put off thinking about the potential blindness, radiotherapy and lifelong medication for now. One step at a time, I reasoned.
When I arrived and checked the bus timetables, one step at a time looked like being the pace I was going to have to use to move around the country. Funny, when I got the commission, I hadn’t thought that a month was a short time to complete the job. Now, looking at public transport schedules, it was glaringly obvious.
My first journey would be from my home in Sligo to Donegal. I rang the bus station in Glencolmcille and the man who answered my call confirmed with some surprise that the bus did indeed run only a few times a week (he had to check the timetable). We sympathised with each other, though why he was so surprised about it I had no idea.
I packed my rucksack and set off, arriving at the Derrylahan hostel to discover that the bus, which dropped me at the top of the road (and wouldn’t be back for two days), was pretty much the only transport in the area. I looked down the long road, cutting through a very beautiful, lush green and empty landscape in some dismay.
I set off walking, realising the sandals I had packed for the trip should have been replaced by a pair of trainers. A driver stopped and gave me a lift to Glencolmcille, and along the way I found out that Glencolmcille has been a place of pilgrimage since the 7th century, An Cistin is the best place to eat, and American artist Rockwell Kent once rented a cow shed in the area so he could spend four months painting the landscape and locals.
I lay on a beach for the day on the Dingle Peninsula, writing up my travel notes.
In town I visited another hostel, where the owner fed me dinner before driving me to the Slieve League cliffs, 600m above the sea. We climbed right up to the Amharc Mor – the very suitably named Great View – where on a good day you can see a third of Ireland. Then he drove me back to the place I was staying, telling me I would have to come back and visit again and stay longer the next time.
That pretty much set the tone for the trip; the kindness, the hospitality, the constant feeding, the willingness of people to go out of their way to help me. What would have happened if I told them about the brain tumour, I don’t know. Maybe someone would have offered to adopt me.
I stopped off to see cousins in Derry who insisted on taking me around all of the local hostelries in the city – you have to see EVERYWHERE for the guide, they told me. My uncle got up every morning to cook me a fry. My aunt waited up every night until we came in from the pub to make us ham sandwiches, even though it was three o’clock in the morning and her eyes were standing out with tiredness.
In Belfast I bought trainers and visited the Botanic Gardens in blazing sunshine. Sitting on a bench, looking at the exotic trees and the beautiful flowers and the light glinting off the enormous Victorian glasshouses, it suddenly hit me that I could die. I looked at the beauty of it all and thought, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to leave this amazing place. I realised I had never truly seen the wonder of everything around me until then.
Slabs of apple tart
But I was a woman on a mission with no time to hang around. Next, I was heading to Dublin where the ticket lady, hearing about my commission, upgraded my train ticket to first class. I was to spend a few days in Dublin at a friend’s, and have a bit of a rest. But when I arrived there was a call from my mother saying the appointment for the MRI scan had arrived a week early. I would have to go back to London sooner than I thought.
“I can’t do it,” I wailed, “I can’t do it in time.” Nonsense said my friend, and in a very short time she had reorganised her husband’s work trip to the south coast so he could take us with him and spend a few days driving me around. She sent me out to do an open-top bus tour around Dublin while she made the arrangements and rebooked my flight back to London. And so I found myself in the back of a car, driving fast out of Dublin in the sunset, eating chocolate and feeling blessed to have great friends.
We drove around the Ring of Kerry, winding our way past the lines of American tour buses, stopping off in Killarney and Kenmare. We visited Kate Kearney’s house and had tea in Lord Brandon’s cottage. We even managed to fit in a great night out in Kilorglin, where friends of my friends took us to a cool little pub with a DJ.
After our whirlwind tour of the south, I headed alone into the midlands and later up the west coast, stopping in Dingle. I tracked down the Ocean View B&B I had stayed in with an ex-boyfriend several years ago. And, just like the last time, the owner fed me cups of tea and slabs of apple tart and cream when I arrived, then we watched her fisherman husband dock at the pier, a few feet from the house. Later, just like the last time, I went to hear some trad music at An Droichead Beag and O’Flaherty’s.
I lay on a beach for the day on the Dingle Peninsula, writing up my travel notes. I visited a friend in Kilkee, spent a day in Galway, walking from the city through the Claddagh to Salthill. I stopped off at the bottom of Croagh Patrick in Mayo, not having the energy left to climb it, and finally arrived back to Sligo. I packed my suitcase and returned to London, the night before my brain scan.
I wrote the chapter, had the surgery and radiotherapy, and now I’m on the lifelong medication. I didn’t lose my sight. I have days when I’m like a screaming banshee, but I know how to pick myself up and keep going. I still look at the beauty of Ireland with all of the wonder that I discovered that day in the Botanic Gardens, and think how ironic it is that I was going blind before I saw it.
I did go back to the Botanic Gardens one day, years later. Over in Belfast for a friend’s wedding, that morning I ran most of the way there, desperate to see it again, remembering all those emotions, that sudden terror I was going to die. I wanted to see it again to tell it that I had lived.