herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Relief in two tiny words

Cancer patients yearn to hear the phrase 'all clear' -- and when it happened to MARIE CARBERRY, all the lights that had been switched off came on

THERE are two little words that every cancer patient wants to hear and they are "all clear".

As I sat in the consultant's room today, my left leg shaking like a jackhammer and my mind turning over at the rate of knots, he said it -- "all clear". I can't begin to tell you the feeling that washes over you when you hear those words. It is as if all the lights that had gone out were suddenly turned on again. Every bit of me wanted to jump across his desk and hug him, but, luckily for him, I resisted.

I danced down the stairs and into the foyer of the hospital. As I queued up to pay for my car parking, I had a sudden memory of standing in the same foyer nine months ago. It was about 7pm, pitch dark and bitterly cold outside. I had just been given my diagnosis and I was on my own; only because I prefer to process things myself first and then share them. I remember looking down at the veins on the back of my hands and saying to myself: "I have cancer, I have cancer." I also remember a group of doctors walking by laughing amongst themselves and looking at them thinking: "I wish I could laugh like that."

I rang my husband and stated boldly: "I have breast cancer." He was so stunned, he was speechless. I rang my close friend, who, only recently, had a stroke and was recovering. I cried when it happened to her and now she was doing the same for me. On the way home, I called in to see my parents. By then I felt completely calm, which I know now was just my coping mechanism for getting through the ordeal. I had tea with them and we discussed the treatment I would have. My mother immediately swung into action in the way that mothers do, and she started making dinners and freezing them. Within a couple of days, I had a freezer full of lasagnes, chicken bakes and stews. She made so many, I'm still eating them.

Telling the children was the hardest part and no parent should have to do it, but it had to be done. I explained it by saying I had a lump and it needed treatment. Yes, I had cancer but the doctors were going to do their very best. They were both shocked but, over the coming days, we talked regularly about it and the word 'cancer' was used a lot. So much so, that it became familiar to them and part of the vocabulary. "That's a terrible thing to say to a woman with cancer," I would say to them when they said something I didn't like. They would laugh and so would I.

PROFESSIONALISM

The mastectomy was the easy part. I didn't miss my breast at the time and still don't. I can have reconstructive surgery but I'm not sure about it. It's a big operation and I don't think I can face a hospital again for quite a while.

Now I'm finished treatment, I can look back and say, yes, some parts of it were horrible but most days were okay. Chemotherapy is a pretty awful medication but, like I said before, you just put the head down and get through it. Chemotherapy is a bit like having a baby -- you forget about it when it's over and concentrate on the benefits it brings. Having spent time in hospital with very sick people, I can see that there are worse things in life than having chemo.

There are many things wrong with the health service in this country but, from my experience, I was met with nothing but competence and efficiency. I was treated at Beaumont Hospital and the Hermitage Clinic, and at all times I felt I was in the best of hands. Their professionalism and respect made me feel safe and secure at a time when I needed it most.

I didn't keep a diary but writing about it here has been extremely therapeutic. I learnt so much about people and myself. There are some who just love the grief, groupie thing and there are people who say the strangest things to you but, for the most part, I have been met with nothing but kindness, support and love: from the woman who constantly lit candles for me to Susan in our local shop who made me brown bread every week; from my coffee morning friends who bought me cakes and made me laugh, to those that brought me in and out of the hospital when I couldn't drive. The list is endless. Just to say to all those of you that helped -- thank you. I couldn't have done it without you.

Yes, there is a chance of the cancer recurring and when I discussed this with my oncologist, he said the best thing possible: "Marie, just go out and live your life." I'm looking forward to it.

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