As it is October, Breast Cancer Awareness month I thought it would be good timing to share the below extract which was published recently. This is an abstract of a much longer piece I wrote with the intention of helping those caring for someone experiencing cancer. I don’t feel quite ready to share the full version yet as it is quite personal however for now I hope this suffices and gets the important message out there! One in eight women develop Breast Cancer in their lifetime and four hundred men are diagnosed each year. Look after yourself and do monthly breast examinations you are far more likely to notice a change in your breasts than a doctor. Checking your breasts and knowing the signs and symptoms of Breast Cancer is the best way of detecting Breast Cancer early and getting treatment. For a detailed guide on how to do this please follow the link at the bottom of the page provided by the Irish Cancer Society. Also please take care of those in your circle if they themselves or their family members are impacted by cancer.
Unfortunately, too many people have become familiar with cancer whether it is, as a result of being directly affected themselves or watching someone they love go through the roller-coaster of a journey that it brings. My mother Deirdre was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015. Given our great bond, I automatically took on the role of being her supporter. My intention in writing this is to help other supporters in similar circumstances. The effect of cancer’s influx is monumental. The loss of control that comes with it is scary and it is these emotions that require the support of an army.
I am an only child and my family has always encompassed Deirdre and me; mother and daughter. Deirdre is the type of woman who walks into a room and holds it in the palm of her hand. In terms of being a mother she out did herself in her abilities to provide me with all the love, care and encouragement I ever needed. Deirdre generates love at a spectacular level and I am lucky enough to have been the biggest recipient of this love. Her love has always been a substitute and therefore any gaps in my family were never obvious.
It was a normal Thursday, I had come home from work and was busy getting the dinner ready. Ian turned to me and said ‘I need to talk to you about something’. Immediately my mind jumped to ‘what did he do? I bet he forgot to put the clothes out like I asked’ however when I looked into his big brown eyes I knew it was something more serious. Ian told me that the doctors were concerned about a recent mammogram that Deirdre had. It was this pivotal moment that I recall nothing as ever being the same again.
Fast forward two weeks and we were sitting in the consultant’s room with the results of Deirdre’s biopsy. The tone in the room was bleak. My mother was informed that she had stage 2 breast cancer. The fear that those words evoked literally felt like someone had physically punched me. My mother being the strong woman she is simply asked ‘Am I going to die?’ and she was thankfully answered with a big joyous solid ‘no’.
At this point I can only describe that it all became very medicalised. By the time we left the hospital that day we had been given every type of scenario imaginable. I understand that ultimately it is a medical emergency and the saving of ones’ life is what takes priority over the emotional trauma that is experienced. However, as a social worker by profession this gap in service provision is too great. I think it is something that hospitals can and should improve. Getting out of the hospital and walking to the car, I could not fathom how everyone was just getting on with their day. All I wanted was for everyone to just stop, for everything to remain still while we digested this information.
Deirdre’s treatment plan was 6 rounds of chemotherapy followed by 33 sessions of radiation. Throughout her journey, I noticed it was when her body was weak that she struggled most with her mind. My mother’s emotional strength has always been rock solid however after her operation her body was trying to heal and this vulnerability along with the mental challenge of having to prepare for chemotherapy was very overwhelming. Throughout the treatment my mother was still the positive beautiful woman she always was however went through her days at a slower pace, still continuing to work as an artist, walking, tutoring a little girl and most importantly and admiringly continuing to enjoy life. As the treatment progressed Deirdre’s patience and tolerance for feeling so weak and unwell began to understandably dwindle. The simple act of rationalising how someone is feeling without offering advice is often much more beneficial. Often advice sends the message that there is a better way of dealing with a situation and when one is feeling low and vulnerable this is unhelpful.
On other occasions, it was advice and support that my mother was seeking which often took the form of breaking things down for her. ‘Bit by bit, step by step’ was our mantra it was the only way to cope with the enormity of the road ahead. We also celebrated each stage and found this to be very effective in dealing with the challenging times. We planned little days out in which we would enjoy a lovely walk together or simply reading a book or doing some meditation. When Deirdre was in pain I encouraged her to express it, to describe it to me and herself; not only the physicality of the pain but what it brought up for her emotionally and mentally.
Throughout the journey, a quote my mother used to tell me really resonated. As she would say, ‘this time shall too pass’ and pass it did. Thankfully, as planned my mother finished her treatment ten months later and was told that it was successful. The women returning home to Ireland was very different to the one that left a few months previous. She now has a profound understanding of the true meaning of life, is driven and focused, more emotional than ever but in a human way. My mother no longer sweats the small things in life and dedicates her attention only to positive aspects of the day.
While her sense of self was definitely illuminated the transition back into normal life came with its difficulties. Everything has changed, the patient’s body has been altered physically and emotionally the mind has been put through a roller-coaster of emotion. Having felt the depth of sadness this experience in sued I now know the importance of feeling and appreciating the happy times. I feel them with every emotion in my body. I don’t just let them pass by I get involved with them. I insure that I am present in them, I smile at them, reminisce on them. Also, in the hard times, I feel the sadness. I don’t run from it in the way I used to. I have the strength to do this now because I have a newly found confidence in my resilience. As cliché as it is, life is short but it is also the longest thing we will ever experience so don’t remain in situations which do not serve you.
The care of an unwell person should have two strands; the physical side and the emotional. It may require different professionals to carry out the tasks involved but the overall physical and mental health of all of us are connected and intertwined. To fix one or the other they both require interventions and go hand in hand. Care pathways which respond to both necessities need to be implemented and developed so that a patient is supported, protected and cared for throughout their treatment and the aftermath. That is my hope for the future of cancer care that it is developed to teach patients the unity of their physical body and intellectual mind. That the care is implemented in a way that offers healing for both unanimously. Cancer is just as much an emotional disease as it is physical and both need care, treatment and intervention of the utmost empathetic and compassionate nature.
We were very lucky to have received a huge amount of support from our amazing family and friends. We are forever grateful to each of them.
Deirdre Carr has created a project documenting her experience called ‘Momoiro’ which will be exhibited around Ireland in 2018 & 2019. It is currently in Culturlann Sweeny Kilkee until the 26th of October and Clare Museum, Ennis until the 26th of October 2018. It will then travel to Galway City Library from July 1st to 31st 2019 during the Galway Arts Festival and onto Ballinasloe Library from the 12th of August to the 28th of August 2019. Pop in and have a look if you are in the area.
Here is an image of one of her pieces : I know I am biased but how beautiful is it. I am so proud of her in so many ways.
Thanks for reading and feel free to reach out to me if you think there is anything I can help you with.