by Louise Doyle
THEY say nothing will make you take stock of your life like the moment you receive devastating news.
Less than a year after hearing she was told she had breast cancer, Gortahork woman, Theresa Harkin, is on the road to recovery after coming through grueling chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.
Undoubtedly, the peaceful and tranquil surrounds of Theresa’s home in the townland of Glasserchoo perfectly compliment her sunny disposition and with her two rescue dogs, Frankie and Tess by her side, her outlook on life is one of a steely determination and a resolution to be loyal and kind to herself.
However, while Theresa isn’t one for looking back or dwelling, she believes Donegal cancer patients are being let down by inadequate services.
Her story and those of other cancer patients who have had to travel on the ‘cancer bus’ from Donegal to Galway for radiotherapy is the subject of an emotional documentary to be broadcast on television later this year.
Speaking to the Donegal News, Theresa told of how last August after attending a regular mammogram appointment, she was recalled to attend another screening.
“I wasn’t feeling unwell but I had been feeling very tired and I knew something wasn’t quite right but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“When I didn’t go for my recall appointment I received a phone call to say I had to go to Galway. It was cancer, they knew right away. I had a biopsy done and two weeks after that I had surgery in Galway. It was traumatic. I thought I was going to be allowed home the day after but I was rushed down for emergency surgery on my right breast because there was a clot and I lost a lot of blood.
“I started my chemotherapy in November. I had to go to Sligo for that as Letterkenny couldn’t take me as the consultant was off sick. I had four months of treatment there and I spent Christmas Eve in hospital. I went down in the morning and come back in the evening. I was so sick after the treatment.”
Having finished her chemotherapy treatment, Theresa then embarked on a tough course of radiotherapy.
“I had to attend hospital in Galway for that as it is not carried out at Letterkenny Hospital. I stayed at Cancer Care West, known as ‘The Lodge’ for a month, coming home every Friday. Although it was an amazing facility, it was so hard to be away from home.
“When you’re told that you’re sick go into complete shock. Everything goes into the little corner of your brain and it stays there, locked. You don’t feel anything; you’re floating until all your treatment is finished. You block it away and get on with what you have to do.”
Although the focus for the mother-of-three is on being and staying well, she says she would like to start a support group for others in her position, who, she says have been failed by a lack of help, support, treatment and holistic therapy.
“During my treatment I lost my hair and that was a major thing for me. I remember it was a big thing for me to take a bus because I knew that people would stare at me, and they did. I think many people don’t realise how hurtful they are with their looks and comments. When I see women with no hair or wearing hats or bandanas I know exactly what they are going through. We need to have a culture of better awareness.”
Although a seasoned mountain climber, Theresa is preparing herself for her biggest challenge yet.
“I’m on the road to recovery but I do sometimes think ‘what if it comes back?’ I try to put that thought out of my mind because I don’t have time to think about that. If the cancer comes back, it comes back – I’ll worry about that when it happens. You have to be very positive – it is a long road to recovery but you have to be physically and mentally strong for it.
“I have to have my final mammogram in August but in my mind the cancer is gone. I’ll go every year for check-ups. I have an excellent consultant in Letterkenny Hospital. However, they are not pumping any money into Letterkenny Hospital. It’s not the fault of the staff, it’s the fault of the Government. It’s a forgotten hospital. The government want to spend money on hospitals on the other side of the country. There is nothing for Donegal people. When I attended hospital in Galway there were five people from this parish at the same hospital because there are no facilities in Donegal, which was the subject of the television documentary we took part in. I was quite angry when I was interviewed because of the fact that I had to go all the way to Galway for my radiotherapy treatment.
“I am thinking about setting up a support group, even from my home, for women in the same boat as myself because there is no help out there, even in the aftermath and during the recovery process.
“There was a while I wasn’t going out. I did lose my confidence when I lost my hair but one day I just got up and put my face on and faced the world. There is a stigma around cancer and everything it is associated with, and it’s not helped by the fact there is no awareness, no support or even holistic therapies for patients and their families.
“I am also hoping to climb Mount Errigal again with my two dogs to raise funds for the cancer bus. The people behind that project do amazing work.”
Theresa has an active social diary most would be jealous of which includes attending yoga classes and ceili dancing in Gaoth Dobhair.
And one very important date she has added to her diary is that of her impending trip to see her son in Canada in July.
“I do believe things happen for a reason so I am living my life to the full. I have learned to love myself. I look at myself differently now.”
Theresa would like to pass on sincere thanks to her partner, Micheal for all his help and support and to Woods Taxis for transportation while she was unwell.
Anyone wishing to get in contact with Theresa can email her at email@example.com