Wednesday 7 December 2016

Husband and wife diagnosed with cancer at the same time on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean- 'It didn't seem like either of us had much life left to live'

On World Cancer Day, writer John Keogh shared how he had been diagnosed with lymphoma at the same time his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Now, four months on, they are cancer-free and learning to live with the mental and physical scars of what happened

Published 24/08/2016 | 00:00

Close: John and Tracy Keogh before their cancer treatment
Close: John and Tracy Keogh before their cancer treatment

We were sitting in the back yard one day last week, relaxing in the sun, when suddenly my wife stood up and said, "Hang on, I'm just going to throw my boobs in the window."

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Seems the heat can get a tad uncomfortable under a pair of fake breasts. So she reached up under her shirt, whipped off the falsies and proceeded to throw them in through the open bedroom window.

We laughed. And then we laughed some more when I told her that what she just said would be the opening shot of an article. She didn't argue, or warn me that such a move would result in grievous bodily harm. So here we are. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On World Cancer Day in February, I wrote about how I was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma at the tail end of last year, just months into my wife's treatment for breast cancer.

Hope: John and his wife Tracy who underwent chemotherapy for stage 3 breast cancer in the US at the same time as him
Hope: John and his wife Tracy who underwent chemotherapy for stage 3 breast cancer in the US at the same time as him

At the time, it didn't look good. Tracy had undergone a double mastectomy, and was having a rough time on chemo. I'd been in hospital for three months and it didn't look like I'd be going home anytime soon.

To make things worse, my wife was having her treatment at home in America. I'd moved there after we married, but returned to Ireland when my health began to decline. Without insurance, long-term medical care in the States was out of the question.

So we were living apart during the worst time in our lives, a time when it didn't seem like either of us had much life left to live.

We were only in our mid-40s, with hopes and plans and dreams like anyone else. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Four months down the road, the outlook doesn't seem quite so grim.

I finally got out of the hospital in March, around about the same time Tracy was finishing chemo. Every day since then, she's been feeling better. Her hair is growing back, thicker than it ever was, with a fair bit more grey than there used to be - "a halo of worry and care," as Johnny Cash put it in one of those old gospel songs.

I'd have a similar halo if I had a similar hairline, but I have to settle for a shocking amount of new snow in the beard that's finally making a comeback after chemo.

With her cancer ordeal behind her, Tracy finally got the all-clear to move to Ireland in May, and is slowly settling in, getting to grips with the culture shock. She got here just as my treatment was ending, and was with me on the big day - Wednesday June 1 - when I went to meet my consultant for the results of my final PET scan.

Shattered: John Keogh pictured at Tallaght Hospital where he underwent where he underwent chemotherapy for stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Photo: Doug O'Connor.
Shattered: John Keogh pictured at Tallaght Hospital where he underwent where he underwent chemotherapy for stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Photo: Doug O'Connor.

I'd been sick with worry for days, waiting to hear what showed up, thinking nothing but the worst. By the time Dr Hilary O'Leary took us into her office at University Hospital Limerick, it was all I could do to keep from throwing up.

She asked us to take a seat, and she smiled, a great big smile I will never forget. And then she said the words.

"I have great news," she said. "The scan shows you're in complete remission."

It's a worn-old cliché to say that time stood still, but in that moment it did. Just for a breath.

Then Tracy cried, I almost combusted with relief, and Dr O'Leary suggested we break out the champagne and book a holiday.

She also suggested I consider therapy for my anxiety, which admittedly has been bordering on the severe. It's an anxiety Tracy shares with me to an extent, one which will be familiar to many fellow cancer patients - the terrible dread that, even though you've beaten this thing, it can always come back with a vengeance.

So every small thing - a cough, a sniffle, the tiniest ache - becomes a symptom, a terrifying sign that all the horrible stuff we've just come through is about to start all over again. And that's a fear we're going to have to get past.

Because for now, we're cancer-free, we're feeling good, and it's starting to look like we might have a lot more life left in us yet.

Which is not to say we came out of it unscathed. Tracy wears fake breasts, has several new scars on her body, and has gone into early menopause. My heart is weaker since the treatment, and I walk with a cane because the chemo damaged the nerves in my legs.

And there are times when it feels like life will never return to normal, that we won't be able to recover all of the things we lost - our work, our independence, everything about the life we once had. Or simply being able to make plans and talk about the future, without that voice in the back of our minds piping up to suggest that we're being a bit presumptuous.

Dealing with that is almost worse than the physical scars.

But we're still here. Or as Tracy puts it, "We're not dead yet."

To that end, we owe much to our medical teams - Dr O'Leary and her team in Limerick, and Dr Kenneth Kotz in Wilmington, North Carolina. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to a lot of fine people in Tallaght hospital. Top of that list are consultant haematologist Dr Ronan Desmond, and my former renal consultant Dr Peter Lavin, whose investigations first uncovered my cancer.

I should also mention a lady named Laura, one of many people who got in touch to wish us well after reading the piece on World Cancer Day. I don't know her last name and I don't know where she's from, but Laura sent a card to me at the hospital. It was a beautiful card, and the message she wrote inside was encouraging.

But the most memorable thing about it was the way she addressed the envelope: "John Keogh, Patient who wrote the article in the Irish Independent, Tallaght Hospital, Dublin."

I mention this because she might have wondered if the card managed to find its way to me. It did, and I'm very grateful for it. It's one of many small gestures that have made me smile, and made my day a little brighter.

Though it doesn't beat watching my wife fling her boobs through the window.

Irish Independent

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