Monday 20 November 2017

How I survived leukaemia

AS I DROVE my daughter to creche on January 5 last, I found myself driving behind a hearse. It was carrying not one, but two coffins, a doubly sobering symbol of the end of life. One looked bigger, bulkier and together I wondered if it was a couple, or a family. Perhaps there was some comfort in lying side by side -- pine coffins like parallel sleepers on the road to who knows where.

Hearses -- all heavy-duty black sleekness -- always rattle my sense of mortality. Five minutes later, clutching my daughter's hand and pushing ourselves into the slanting wind, I heard a funeral bell. Not one coffin, but two. Not one funeral reminder, but two. The coincidence that the day was January 5 was not lost on me.

Nine years ago on that day, before I ever dreamed I would battle a windswept Thursday holding the pale pink hand of my little girl, something nearly took it all away.

The day started with an ambulance visit and a pain in my lung that required no fingers on buzzers ("Correct! That DVT in your leg HAS travelled into your lung! Bonus point if you can spell "pulmonary embolism". Ding!). Eight hours later came the diagnosis from a blonde haemotologist who looked my own age.


A sentence that begins "Well, it's not good news . . ." never pulls itself out of that negative tailspin. Leukaemia.

The only person I had ever known who had had it was treated in Jervis Street, when it was a crumbling hospital and not a consumerist shrine. My dad had been taken there with a ruptured ulcer when my mother was pregnant with me. Only for the fact that he worked on Gardiner Street, and the hospital was nearby, he'd have died. Fate and death are interesting adversaries in my family.

Having to tell other people was the worst part. My parents' arrival on the ward was imminent. Fearing my mother's reaction, I chickened out and asked a nurse to tell them. When they'd been given tea, biscuits and crumpled tissues, the same nurse brought them in.

To date, I don't remember this moment, but my mother insists it happened. When her ashen face appeared around the curtain, I piped up, with forced cheeriness: "I'm not going to die, I'm going to write a book!"

I have no idea where those words come from. Or where any of the words or thoughts or feelings that crowded my head did. I do remember calling my brother 11,000 miles away and listening to him sob down the phone.

The treatment -- what else is there to say? -- is utterly grim and relentless. Six months of intensive chemo followed, as well as a revolutionary drug made from vitamin A by a Chinese scientist, who I Googled and nearly emailed once. The cosmetic side effects were fine. My teens were a litany of shaved-head experiences, but now my expensive highlights were tumbling out, so I took the razor to them.

It was the sickness; the eyesight problems that made reading impossible; the pneumonia; the jaundice; the ability to only eat crackers and cheese; the isolation.


Remission -- that wonderful green light -- kicked in quickly, followed by two years of obligatory maintenance treatment. Finally, in October 2005, I was free of all drugs. One year later, I was pregnant with my son. My daughter followed 16-and-a-half months after his birth and I know I am the luckiest person in the world. Every January 5 makes me feel that even more.

It is also the anniversary of my grandfather's death. A kind, funny man who had been an army chef, he used to tell me that if anyone saw my grandmother's ghost, it would be me (I did, but that's another story). But death to him wasn't frightening, nor were people who were no longer with us.

He would mysteriously say: "You should be more afraid of the living than of the dead". And he's right. It's the living -- usually our finicky, griping selves -- who stop us from stepping up, from taking chances, from doing whatever it is we really want to do.

It's been nine years, and I am well and happy. Perhaps it's time to make good that promise to my mother and write that book.

Sinead Gleeson joins RTE's new arts show The Works as a reporter. RTE One, Thursdays, 10.45pm

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