My Journey So Far
Updated: Nov 29, 2018
I was inspired to write about my cancer journey by a new friend called Leslie Walsh. She beat cancer and wrote about it on a blog just like this. I remember one morning, the week I was told I’d lose my hair, I sat on the floor in my living room with Pia, and read Leslie’s story from start to finish in 20 minutes. I’ll never forget how I felt after reading it. I felt stronger, braver and ready to face my journey more than ever before. That morning I told myself if I was lucky enough to get my life back, I’d do the same. I want my words to bring somebody comfort, just like Leslie’s did for me. So here it goes and thanks for the inspiration.
Diagnosis and Surgery
I’ll keep this short, just like Lesie did so you can get a full overview of exactly what I’ve been through in the last year.
I found my lump in the middle of the night. Pia was seven months old. She was still feeding at 12am and 5am, so I was up a lot. But sure, I was used to it at that stage. Jamie helped me a lot. I breastfed Pia for 5 glorious months, we bonded, we laughed, we were best friends. Since Pia came into our lives a lot had changed. She was born in February 2017. In April, Jamie decided to leave SPIN after 12 amazing years and we bought a house. A lot of stress, but we were happy and pinching ourselves that everything had worked out just the way we planned. Our house is beautiful. Every room has a view of the Dublin mountains. There are horses and cows right on our doorstep. It’s a perfect place for us to expand our little family.
But I began to feel very tired and my skin and hair just looked ‘different’. I kept looking at myself in the mirror and asking my mum what was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I told my mum and Jamie that I just didn’t feel like myself.
On October 4th I went to bed and asked Jamie to do the first night feed because I was exhausted. Jamie fed Pia and at 1.30 he was placing her back in her crib beside our bed, when I leaned over to rub her face. But my hand fell against a rock hard lump on my right breast that stopped me dead in my tracks. I told Jamie to feel it and he looked at me with sheer panic. I knew it was bad. I bawled crying on the bed and Jamie finally convinced me to come into the lounge to discuss it. We decided to go to the GP first thing the next morning and get it seen to. The next morning I text my Mum to tell her we would drop Pia in on the way to the doctor because I found a lump. I remember my Mum having the exact same expression as Jamie when I saw her that morning.
My GP said she would send an urgent request for me to be seen in Vincent’s the following week but I couldn’t go another day without knowing what was wrong with me. So I called around a few hospitals that day and got an appointment in Beaumont the following day. At this point I was praying for a cyst or a blocked milk duct. The following morning with Jamie by my side I arrived in Beaumont for an ultra sound. I was seen by Doctor Duke who ruled out a cyst straight away. I bawled. I cried every tear in my body in the waiting room as I was told to clear my schedule for the day to make way for a mammogram and biopsy. One lady brought me tea and biscuits, I was numb. The bottom had fallen out of my world in just a day and I knew my life would never be the same again.
I was supposed to go to the radio awards that night, my first night away from Pia. But I couldn’t go. I couldn’t bear to be away from my family. I was shocked to the core.
That weekend as I waited for results was hell. There is no other way to describe it. I knew what was coming, but I just didn’t know how bad it would be. Everyone tried to keep me positive but at that point I just felt entirely isolated from everything and everyone. I felt different to everybody. I remember doing the shopping looking at other people almost feeling like I was on borrowed time. It was such a weird unknown feeling to me. Nothing since has been as bad as that weekend. Even the day I was told I had cancer.
That happened on the Tuesday, in a little meeting room in Beaumont Hospital. Jamie was with me when Professor Arnie Hill confirmed I had breast cancer. The surgeon reassured me I would get my life back, that this was a bump in the road. When I asked him if I’d die, he said it was ‘very unlikely’. I walked out of that hospital with hope in my heart and a fire in my belly to fight. What else could I do? I had a baby who depended on me, that needed me and I was determined to be here for her. I’d always said Pia looks at me like nobody ever has. She is the absolute love of my life and I couldn’t give up when I had so much to lose. On the way home from the hospital, I then had to make one of the most difficult phone calls of my life, to tell my mum I had cancer. She was up the walls, waiting to hear news, praying I would be in the clear, but it wasn't to be. My entire family was gathered at mums house waiting to hear.
Getting a diagnosis like that is devastating, but knowing where I stood allowed me to pick myself up and get on with what I needed to do. CT scans and lymph node biopsies followed that week and I’d find out the following week if my cancer had spread. But my gut told me it hadn’t. However, another hellish week followed waiting for the results. My mum and Jamie were tag teaming. It was only on about day 4 that I realised I hadn’t been alone since I was diagnosed. When Jamie had to go to work, my mum would arrive and stay with me until he came home. I just tried to get on with things as best I could, taking Pia for walks and eating super healthy. I don’t know why I was so focused on food, but it helped me get a sense of control and I felt like I was doing something positive to help myself. I knew I’d need a lot of strength over the next year, so raw veg and tonnes of water became my new thing.
The following Monday, Prof Hill rang me to tell me my cancer hadn’t spread. That was one of the greatest moments of my life. I felt like a loaded gun had been pointed to my head and all of a sudden it had disappeared. My mum and Pia were with me when I got that call. All I could do was hug them. Jamie and my step dad Joe rushed to the house and we had a big lunch to celebrate. That was the day of Storm Opelia. It was the perfect day to be locked away with them. I’ve never felt such relief and joy. That night I watched a Tony Robbins documentary on Netflix called Not Another Guru. There was no particular reason for watching, I just stumbled across it and to say it started to change my entire journey is an understatement. The documentary closed with the phrase ‘Life doesn’t happen to you, life happens for you’. And from that moment on, my inner strength began to grow and grow.
At this point only a very few close family members and friends knew of my diagnosis. We decided to keep the news very much to ourselves until I got the results of my surgery. My doctors had decided to perform a lumpectomy as well as the removal of two lymph nodes, which would be tested to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread. They were taking absolutely no chances with me which gave me a lot of reassurance. I felt calm on the morning of my surgery but the moment I was lead off down the corridor by myself was difficult. I turned to wave to Jamie who was standing at the door, scared of what was to come but I just kept chanting in my head ‘life doesn’t happen to you, life happens for you’. I couldn’t make sense of the cancer then, I was angry and sad, but I had hope in my heart that I’d see the light again.
They’d told me I could turn blue after the surgery, so that was something to look forward to. Half of me almost wished I would turn blue just so I could have a laugh again. I lay on the operating table staring at the roof and prayed to god that everything would be ok. The staff in Beaumont were amazing, always in good form, just lovely people. I got to go home that day; I couldn’t wait to see Pia. At that point, it had been the longest I’d ever been away from her. To get home and see her was everything.
Two weeks later I was called to get the results from my surgery. My margins weren’t clear enough so they had to operate again, but I didn’t care, my nodes were cancer free. The following day I was admitted to The Hermitage hospital where my second surgery was carried out. I had a much different reaction when I woke from that surgery. I was bawling crying; feeling really, really sick and the cancer diagnosis hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was brought outside in a wheelchair with Jamie to get some air and I just cried and cried. I couldn’t believe this was my life. I felt like my happiness had been stolen from me. I was devastated.
Jamie and my family always helped me pick up the pieces on those days. My mum, Joe, my brothers Michael and Sam and my sisters-in-law Ciara, Julie and Jean, my mother in law Hazel, brother in law Jason they were there for me 24/7. Always on my doorstep, at the end of the phone. Julie has two boys; she knew exactly how I felt being a new mum. She was heartbroken for me. My mum was just in complete shock and never left my side.
It was around that time I met with my oncologist Michael Morris, for the first time. I still had hoped I wouldn’t need chemotherapy. Still had hoped I wouldn’t lose my hair. But it wasn’t to be. I was told I’d need 5 months of chemo, following weeks of radiotherapy and then I would most likely go on a drug called Tamoxifin for up to five years. The doctor told me I’d definitely lose my hair around the time of the second session of chemo and there was a good chance my eyebrows and eyelashes would go too. He said they would put me in a menopause to protect my ovaries and that my fertility had an 80% chance of coming back. I was told I couldn’t have another baby for at least another 2 years, at a push. And I should strongly consider a round of IVF before I started chemotherapy on December 18th. Another day filled with a river of tears. I was crying for my family, for Jamie, Pia and I and all the plans that had suddenly dissolved. Crying for Pia that she wouldn’t have a sibling close in age. How did this happen to me and how was I going to accept it. Had I done this to myself? Did I not look after myself properly? So much guilt on top of it all. But I was so pleasantly surprised by how compassionate the doctors were in Beaumont. Doctor Morris was so sympathetic to me and I’ll never ever forget it. Along with Arnie Hill, they never made me feel like my tears about my hair were silly and never spoke to me unsympathetically. They were simply amazing. Jamie went into action mode with the IVF. To be honest, if he didn’t, I don’t know how I would have organised it and I really don't think it would have happened at all. I was still really sore from the surgery, trying to heal as best as I could. He contacted Beacon Care Fertility and arranged an appointment straight away because the timeline for IVF was very tight.
After our consultation with Beacon Care Fertility I had a lot of hope. I believed in it and was confident it would work for us. Two weeks of injections and tablets followed and to be honest I was so consumed by the cancer stuff, this was just another thing I had to do in my life that I didn't recognise anymore. I didn’t have time to look into it too closely, I just went with it and tried to stay stress free, but I was so hormonal and just...wrecked. On Friday December 15th, they recovered 27 eggs from my ovaries. I was so bloated I could barely walk that morning. But the doctors were overjoyed at how successful it was, so we kept our fingers crossed that over the weekend, the eggs and sperm would come together to give us some embryos. It was a massive success and we now have 15 frozen embryos in the hospital, awaiting our next chapter.
The night of my egg collection, Jamie gave me an injection to shut down my ovaries. It was one of the hardest moment The doctors warned me I was going from a ‘pregnancy high’ to a ‘shock menopause’. I was warned, Jamie was warned, everyone was warned that I might get a little ‘irrational’ over the next couple of weeks. And that’s enough about that shall we say.
Three days later I arrived at the Beacon Hospital to start my chemotherapy, full of high hopes that it wouldn’t be as bad as I imagined it to be. I loathed the fact that I had to put chemo into my body but decided to let down my barriers and welcome it into my life. I really wanted it to work, so I figured there was no point in trying to fight it or let negativity about it take over. That morning, the nurses were undecided about whether to go through with the treatment because I was still healing from my second surgery, but one of the doctors signed off on it and away we went. The chemo ward was different to how I expected. I imagined there to be big old arm chairs and a lot of old people. How wrong I was. The chairs were more like dentist chairs and could recline all the way back. You got your breakfast and lunch delivered to your chair, you could even select from a menu and order more pillows and blankets. The patients were more like an assembly of people you’d see in the line of a local shop, they were all ages. That’s when it really hit me that cancer doesn’t discriminate. Jamie held my hand and I cried as they injected a disgusting looking red fluid into my arm. My chemotherapy was called AC and if you goggle it, it’s described as ‘the red devil’. They tell you to expect a long day for your first session and as I arrived home with a bag full of drugs and a timetable of when to take them, I still couldn’t believe it was my life. I’d also asked Jamie to call it ‘chemotherapy’ instead of ‘chemo’. I wasn’t quite at the stage where I wanted to be so casual about it. That evening, my mum and Joe were in my house looking after Pia and I was pottering around trying to act as normal as possible, although I did feel really weird from the steroids. Mum kept telling to to sit down but I wanted to just be normal and carry on like I always did. But it was almost like I was on the outside looking in. A couple of hours later I crashed on the couch, I didn’t have energy to move and I felt so nauseous, just like morning sickness. I couldn't even sit up. I took an anti sickness tablet and hoped for the best. Mum and Jamie tried to convince me to go back to hospital but I just wanted to get into my own bed and just thought it would pass. By 11pm I was on my hands and knees in the bathroom feeling like I was half dead. I was just so weak and retching over and over again. Jamie called my mum and she rushed to my house to mind Pia while Jamie drove me to hospital. I felt so sick, I had zero energy and I could barely walk. I was put straight into a bed and put on a drip while the nurses tried to find an anti sickness tablet that would work. By 8am the next morning I started to feel a little better. But they wanted to keep me in and to be honest I was so sick, it’s the only place I wanted to be at that time. A lot of things went through my mind for those two days I was in hospital. It was Christmas week, my heart was broken. But I was so, so tired and I mainly slept, I knew Pia was safe and happy with Jamie and my family. I just had to concentrate on feeling better. By the time I walked out of there my doctors were confident we had found the right medication for me and it was upwards and onwards.
A very emotional Christmas break followed and I was back for my second round of chemo in the first week of January. This was the one that would make my hair fall. At this point I was just ready for it to go. It was hanging over me and all I wanted to do was put my energy into dealing with the chemo, I couldn’t worry about my hair and do that at the same time.
I planned to see how the hair loss went and pick a day to shave my head the following week but it started falling at such a ferocious rate it had to go three days later. I had pictured this night for months. I could picture it clearly in my head. I’d have the girls round, my mum, my sisters in law, my best friend and Jamie. I wanted there to be loads of candles, Spanish music and yummy food. That was just the way it was in my head and that’s the way it had to be. My friend and hair stylist Danielle Garner, who was with me on my wedding day, came to my house with tears in her eyes and a big yellow box. A box of sunshine she called it, filled with candles, organic hair and skin products, manuka honey and loads more. What a thoughtful thing to do. Everybody else arrived with presents too, which I did not expect, but I suppose everybody wanted to cheer me up. My mum is my rock and gives me determination to keep going. Jamie is just the best husband I could ask for. It’s like my sisters in law Ciara and Julie could see into my soul. And my best friend Audrey is the funniest, most positive person you could ask for. So I had a pretty good squad. As Daneille cut my hair shorter and shorter, she gave me an idea of what it would be like when it started growing back. She said ‘this is what it’ll be like next Christmas, this is what it will be like in August. And I can never thank her enough for that. It gave me hope and that’s what I needed. As the razor glided over my head, I noticed how peaceful and nice the vibe in the room was. It was exactly how I pictured it to be. I think everyone was relieved that I didn’t bawl or hate the way I looked. I accepted it and even liked the look of it, it wasn’t so bad and that big cloud that had been hanging over me was suddenly gone and I could move on.
Obviously, there were very difficult moments to come. As my hair fell out more over the next week or so, I wasn’t as nice as the buzz cut I’d had. I became bald, very bald. There wasn’t a shred of hair on my head. I really started to look like ‘that girl’ with cancer. Every time I walked past a mirror I’d be reminded of it, I just couldn’t believe my reflection. How had this happened to me I’d wonder. How will Jamie feel about me looking like this? I was trying to get used to the wig but I just didn’t feel like myself and knew I wouldn’t until my hair grew back. This is just a moment in time, Jamie would tell me. It will be back, it’s not permanent.
When my AC chemo finished at the start of February, it was a massive relief. The sickness never really entirely went away, I was in bed at 9.30 most nights and I was an emotional wreck. I’d gotten a tooth ache after my third cycle and it was just too much to bear. I cried for four days. I just couldn’t cope with the pain on top of everything else. I just couldn’t do it. But it’s like just when you physically can’t take anymore, it’s over. And that day came for me and I was so grateful. Another chemotherapy called Taxol was next. That was a chemo that I’d get every Monday for 12 weeks. This was the one that would give me aches and pains, could cause my nails to fall off, and my eyebrows and lashes to go. I remained hopeful my eyebrows and eyelashes would hang in there , but they didn’t. On this chemo, I had to have a PICC line inserted because my veins couldn’t hack the lines anymore and I needed something more permanent. It’s basically a tube attached to your veins so you could effectively be plugged into the chemo every week, but I had to walk around with a line hanging out of my arm for 3 months and it’s was a lot bigger and more cumbersome than I’d anticipated. It was wrapped in a bandage and would get so itchy I felt like ripping it out of my body. But it was just another thing I had to get through. My nails did start to hurt a lot, they had begun to lift off my nail bed, but fortunately they never fell off completely. I was walking like an 80 year old and every blade of hair on my entire body fell out. That was hard. I could live without the hair on my head, but now I looked really, really sick. It was the toughest mental challenge of my entire life, but I kept going, fuelling my body with the best food. Eating raw vegetables, hardly any alcohol. I didn’t miss the wine though, all I could focus on was getting to the end of chemo. Most Saturday nights I’d cry myself to sleep, I was stuck in a parallel universe that I couldn’t escape. I didn’t recognise myself. It was just so hard to believe this was my life.
Support gets you through it though. Jamie, there with me every step of the way. He never left me, never went for a pint, he was there to catch me every time I fell. My mum would take over when he was in work, never left my side. She helped with Pia, with the washing, endless dinners. My stepdad Joe is Pia’s best friend, he would just arrive at my house to play with her. My brother Michael and his partner Ciara rang me every single day on the way home from work, called in on countless occasions to keep me company until Jamie came home from work. My brother Sam was great too, always so caring and concerned. All of our lives were on hold until this terrible time passed and we all knew it would. It had to. My nurse Grace made me laugh every time I went in for chemotherapy. She'd take so much time to distract me and tell me funny stories. I actually looked forward to seeing her every time I went into the Beacon. These people are angels in disguise.
The day that chemotherapy ended felt like a blur. I expected to be over the moon but it was just another day and I didn’t feel any sort of massive relief. It’s not like I could move on and never look back. Cancer had plonked itself in the middle of my life and there was no ‘moving on’. At least, not yet.
I was able to take a break in treatment for about a month and we popped over the Spain for a week and spent some time there with mum and Joe. It was lovely to be getting my energy back and I could really notice the difference after just a couple of weeks. I could stay up and have a glass of wine and chat to Jamie and my family. It really felt like a victory in many ways. I wasn’t jumping for joy but my spirits were lifting quite a bit.
Four weeks of radiotherapy was scheduled next and I was told the side effect was mainly fatigue. I was to have 20 sessions. Every day, Monday to Friday. It was a pain to get in and out to the hospital everyday but I just counted the sessions down. I was absolutely exhausted from the radiotherapy. It was so much more tiring than I ever thought it would be. So I was back to the early nights and naps as much as I could. My hair had started to grow back though, and I felt like for the first time in a year I could get a little bit excited for the finish line.
The day I finished radiotherapy was totally weird. When I finished my last session I locked myself in the changing room and stared at myself in the mirror for about five minutes. I couldn’t believe I was free. I drove out of the hospital and thanked god I wouldn’t have to go back there for a while. But I was literally gone less than two minutes when my phone rang. It was the hospital scheduling in an appointment with my oncologist the week after. Bloody typical I thought, I didn’t even get to enjoy the moment. I had to laugh and was just glad I didn’t build the moment up too much in my head. I knew cancer was part of my life and would be forever, I just had to work on myself and learn how to move on without it causing too much stress.
Since then, it's been a roller coaster of emotions as we try to put our lives back together again. There is no massive relief, no big party, but an appreciation for life like you wouldn't believe. I'll speak about how I got through it mentally, how I built my life back up again and how I feel about the fertility side of things very soon. Stay tuned x