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My journey through a year of cancer treatment 

LITTLE more than a year has passed since I first heard five words which have changed my life forever: “I’m sorry, but it’s cancer”.
At the time of my diagnosis, I knew treatment for cancer had come a long way but I knew little else. The first few days were quite hard as I found my mind drifting towards the worst case scenario and assuming that I hadn’t too long left on this earth.
But then something inside clicked. Amidst all the medical jargon and being told about tumours and cancerous polyps I remember my surgeon, Mr Saqib Zeeshan, saying that my cancer was treatable. The words treatable and curable, another lovely word I heard ahead of my radiation treatment some six months later, have been my go-to words throughout much of the past twelve months.
It was in the early days of November 2018 that I went to my doctor for a routine check-up. I had bloods taken, the results of which led to a colonoscopy appointment at Letterkenny University Hospital a few weeks later. A biopsy was taken and a tumour in my colon was discovered following detailed medical tests.
Much of that day remains a blur with several consultants and nurses gathered around me asking questions. At the time I had no symptoms whatsoever and there was little or no room for fatigue in what was a busy life. Walks on Narin beach close to where I live continued but over time they became shorter as energy levels declined.
I recall being wheeled into theatre, on Thursday morning, January 31, for surgery where an old football friend Johnny McGroarty and Ann Marie Dunleavy provided two very welcome faces. The clock said it was 9.27am.
The next thing I remember is waking up to Ann Marie’s smile and being told that it was past 7pm.
The surgery was a success, and the tumour was removed. This was great news, but little did I realise what lay ahead. The tumour was larger than it had shown up on the scans and I would need chemotherapy and radiation – neither of which had been part of the original treatment plan.
I was in shock and upset but did my best to remain strong for my elderly parents, Danny and Rose, my wife Patricia and three children Megan, Danny and Paul, telling them all it would be fine. I would spend a total of eleven days in the High Dependency Unit of LUH post-operation before being discharged.
My time in hospital coincided with a strike by nurses which met with the full support of the patients. Those overworked and underpaid “angels of mercy” are a credit to their profession and I, for one, have nothing but good to report from my time under their expert care.
Next I had a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line inserted in my right upper arm which, with the ileostomy (an artificial opening in the abdominal wall as a result of the surgery) was like two extra limbs attached to me for the next nine months. I continue to wear an ileostomy which may or may not be reversed via a surgical operation in the future.
I was lucky enough to be placed under the care of Ms Rita Marren, Clinical Nurse Specialist, for my stoma care and Rita and her colleagues Cathy and Mary continue to provide wonderful support.
I was back in LUH for my first chemotherapy in March which left me tired but, thankfully, I never got sick. I didn’t lose my hair, eyebrows (or even my lashes) during treatment although there was the occasional bout of chemo-induced short term memory loss.
I would spend the next seven and a half months travelling up to the Oncology Day Care ward in Letterkenny for treatment one day a fortnight during which time a number of fellow patients became good friends. So too did the nurses. Their professionalism, given the cramped conditions in which they are being asked to work, was a joy to behold and they helped me to find the strength and resilience that I didn’t know I had.
For this part of my treatment I was under the expert care of Dr Karen Duffy, Consultant Oncologist, and her team. Closer to home, Public Health Nurse Lorraine Sweeney was a weekly visitor to my house to dress my PICC line. An unscheduled week-long stay in LUH at the start of April provided a timely reminder that I was no longer bullet-proof before the summer days saw me travel to and from Altnagelvin in Derry for 28 days of radiotherapy. I developed a routine of having a coffee every day in the hospital canteen with my wife Patricia and sister Margaret – a nurse in Altnagelvin – after the treatment, before going home to rest.
Dr Ahmed Bedair, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, North West Cancer Centre, was the lead consultant during my time in Derry.
Initially I tried to fight the fatigue but eventually gave in on the advice of the radiotherapists and rested.
Fighting the fatigue was the first of my mistakes, and bad judgment in dealing with my illness.
My scheduled treatment on July 12 would be postponed although I found that cancer doesn’t do Bank Holidays, north or south of the border! I also found humour helped me negotiate my way through some of the darker moments.
After all who doesn’t have a sense of tumour (I know!).
On a more serious note , I do believe that every cancer patient should be afforded a medical card – something which took me almost four months to obtain – at a time when you’ve more than enough stress in your life. The Western Health and Social Care Trust in Derry on the other hand couldn’t have been more helpful, offering hotel accommodation and petrol expenses for patients like me who had to travel more than 65 miles from their home for treatment.
Early on I told people about my cancer diagnosis, via social media, as I realised that not talking about your cancer can be much more stressful than talking about it.
When I got sick, there was an outpouring of concern, caring and love from all over. I was told that you find out who your real friends are during a time like this and I must say I have great friends and a lot of support.
College classmates from yesteryear, former football team-mates, friends and friends of friends took time to send cards, hand written letters and Mass Bouquets. They were there for me during and after treatment. Today, I’m in touch with people I wouldn’t have otherwise been. I think that too has helped me feel so positive these days.
While the treatment is finished the battle remains ongoing for me, my wife, daughter, sons, parents and family. I will continue to do all the things I did before including travelling around the county to find lovely views, walking the beaches and meeting up with friends.
Life has given me a new challenge, but a new year brings with it, for me, a new normal. That’s the mantra I’ll carry with me into 2020 and beyond.
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