‘Being told you have cancer just shakes you to the core’
Patients who battled the disease want people to hear stories of survival, not loss, they tell Ailín Quinlan
Up to 2003, Rita Fahy's life was busy but happy - after taking time off from the job she loved to look after her 92-year-old mother, she was thoroughly enjoying life.
Then aged 53, Rita had worked as a secretary with the marriage counselling agency Accord, but took 15 months' carer's leave to look after her mum, Eileen.
"Mum really loved being with us," says Rita of Eileen, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 94.
"All in all it was a good time, with many happy days spent with my mum, and even better evenings when the family were home and we played cards with her or helped her to make a jigsaw. There was lots of fun and laughter, life was good."
Then, one morning in March 2003, Rita - whose children were all grown up and working - noticed a change in her breast.
"It was subtle, just a thickening in the tissue and a swelling underneath. I thought I'd better have it checked out," recalls the Dublin woman, whose story is one of those featured on the new Lazarus community forum recently launched by the Lakelands Area Retreat and Cancer Centre (LARCC) in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath.
LARCC is the only cancer support centre in Ireland offering residential breaks to people affected by cancer.
At first, Rita wasn't overly worried - she'd only recently been given the all-clear by Breast Check.
Furthermore, doctors had found three lumps in previous years, all of which had been diagnosed as benign. Things moved rapidly - tests and an appointment in St James's Hospital in Dublin were followed by a biopsy and then a request that she come in for a chat. The tests, she learned, had found a malignant tumour close to her chest wall. Rita was told she would have to have a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
"I thought I was prepared for the news - but when you are told you have cancer it shakes you to the core. I didn't know what to think."
In May 2003, Rita had a mastectomy and her lymph nodes were removed.
Next came three months of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiotherapy.
"There were good days and bad days, but during this time I found a strength and courage I didn't realise I had," says Rita. Somehow, she recalls, she managed to stay positive throughout.
"I surprised myself by the strength and courage I found in myself. I went back for a check-up every six months for five years and after that it was every year.
"Last year, I was discharged from the yearly check-ups, 11 years after the surgery."
Rita uploaded her story to the Lazarus forum because, she feels, it's a beacon of hope: "It's great to hear a story of hope like mine.
"We don't often hear about the stories of survival, we hear every day about the loss of people who died from cancer - and it is devastating for their families.
"I was very lucky to have the support I have, and I had loads, but there are people who don't always have the support they need.
"I would say to people, 'look at the website, look at the stories; it might give you some comfort and hope for the future'."
Mother-of-three Catherine McGovern's story also appears on the forum.
Catherine had always enjoyed writing - but when her children gave her a book in which to record her recipes, she filled its pages instead with a story of war. Her war against cancer.
In 2003, Catherine was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
"The type of cancer I have is quite unusual and people don't know much about it," the Thurles, Co Tipperary, woman explained.
"It's not as common as breast cancer, It's a cancer of the blood and blood cells."
Catherine (50) had always enjoyed writing, she recalled, but the recipe book, which her kids gave her in 2009, kick-started a real determination to record her survival.
"I find that the more you write, the more you're able to get it off your chest," said Catherine who, as a result of the incurable cancer which destroyed her immune system, successfully battled pneumonia, swine flu and also organ failure in recent years.
Last December, she self-published 'Myeloma My Life', on her 13-year struggle with the condition - and recently uploaded her story on the Lazarus story-telling forum.
The idea of the Lazarus forum, explains founder and cancer survivor Frank Russell, is to enable "ordinary" cancer patients to tell their own stories of treatment and survival.
Russell believes the forum gives newly-diagnosed cancer patients access to real-life stories which will give them both first-hand information and, importantly, hope, as they face into their treatment programmes.
Lazarus also plans to help raise much-needed funds towards the running costs of the cancer support centre, which was the brainchild of a dynamic young Tipperary businesswoman Ita Bourke, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and tragically passed away shortly before the centre was formally opened in 2002.
To date, almost 1,000 people have come on residential breaks to LARCC.
The Lazarus community forum was Frank Russell's idea. A former Air Corps commandant and retired inspector of air accidents from Dublin, he has been diagnosed and successfully treated for cancer twice.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with neck cancer and at the time was given two years to live. In 2007, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but again it was treated successfully.
The forum currently has stories posted from cancer patients in Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Roscommon, Tipperary, Limerick, Clare and Leitrim.
"The idea for the forum came from listening to cancer patients on social occasions during their stay on the LARCC residential weeks.
"I heard some brave and uplifting stories and some sad ones too.
"My sincere hope is that the forum will open doors otherwise shut to ordinary cancer patients, and empower them to express their thoughts and feelings on their condition both for themselves and, importantly, for those more recent patients."
The unusual name, he explains, comes from St John's Gospel, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and in which Martha relates that she and her sister Mary were 'caring' for their sick brother at home.
"I always think of myself as a bit of a Lazarus, so to speak, having got through two cancer diagnoses," he quips.
When she heard about the forum, Catherine McGovern was immediately interested.
She had visited LARCC on a number of occasions during her long battle with her illness, and when she heard about the site, instantly decided to add her voice to the stories on the website:
'I think it's good to be vocal and I feel the Lazarus forum is a great help to people," she said. She had plenty to write about - her multiple myeloma left her with no immunity to fight any kind of infection.
"Since 2003, I've had a major health event every single year. In 2005, I suffered organ failure and somehow pulled through but took a long time to recover while still continuing with my treatment.
"In 2006 and 2008, it was pneumonia and in 2007, swine flu. I underwent stem cell treatment in 2009, as this had produced great results in a number of cancer patients.
"Unfortunately, I was not one of the lucky ones and after spending six weeks in isolation had to continue with traditional treatment."
In 2013, Catherine was included in a new treatment under clinical trials in Ireland. "I was deemed suitable for the trial but before the trial began, the cancer had spread to my ribs and I had to have radiotherapy to heal my ribs before I could begin the trial."
She received the treatment in late December, 2013 - it's now completed - and she underwent weekly chemotherapy.
Catherine regularly took the opportunity to speak of her experiences, she said, in order "to raise awareness of this devastating disease and how it might take over your life but not yourself".
"I am Catherine first and that is how I want to be in spite of the knocks," she declared.
n Catherine McGovern passed away shortly after giving this interview.
n The Lazarus forum can be found on www.cancersupport.ie