Donal: In his own words
Donal Walsh, who died aged just 16 at his home in Kerry on Sunday wrote about his four-year battle with cancer in the 'Sunday Independent'. Here is an edited version of the story that inspired readers throughout the country
Published 15/05/2013 | 05:00
Every day people say I'm brave, that I'm courageous and I hate that. I'm just doing what I have to do to survive, to live another day.
The first time they told me, I was at home on the phone to my friend.
It was September 11, 2008, my mom came in, she didn't have to say anything, I knew straight away what had happened.
I knew it was bad but I didn't understand the severity of it.
I had cancer, a tumour that had grown on my right femur just above my knee and little did I know it would destroy parts of my life that I had never planned on letting go of.
The first step was chemo.
I thought at the time it would be one step but it turned out to be 26 chemo sessions throughout the year.
Doxorubicin, cisplatin and methotrexate were my chemotherapies.
They were my best friends and my worst enemies. They would save my life and nearly kill me but I was doing it. I wanted to live, to play for Munster, to travel the world, to raise children and die when I'm 100, not 12.
The first chemotherapy started on September 18, 2008.
I had a lot of bad days over the next few weeks. I was going downhill fast and everyone knew it.
Everyone except me.
I couldn't see what was happening to me, I would walk into the hospital for my chemo, take my bed next to a baby, I'd see two adults asleep on the floor. I'd take my vomiting bowl and pee jar for the week.
Then I'd sleep. I shut it out. I didn't want to be like the three-year-olds who would walk around with smiles and toys.
I wanted to be Donal. But when you walk in there, you lose everything; your pride, your dignity and once they start the chemo, you lose your body.
Normality changes too. I had trouble struggling to figure out what it was for me. I'd wake up and get my injection, I'd get sick a couple of times a day, I'd wander around the house, waiting for school to finish and maybe a few friends would come over. They didn't treat me the same. I was different, I was that person you stop your kids from staring at. I was sick.
I had one of the worst days of my life in early November.
They told me that I would need surgery and it was more complicated than they thought. It was too close to my knee for bone salvage surgery so they would need to remove half my femur, all my knee and a small part of my tibia and replace it with prosthetics.
I knew what this meant: sport was gone. My dream, the only thing I wanted, was gone. I was devastated. I couldn't talk to anyone for days.
My operation in January was the toughest thing I have ever had to do. I was weak. I lost 23kg and I was still sick. But I knew what I had to do. I had to learn to walk again. Three weeks later my physiotherapist sat down with me for the first time. She said, "We might get you down to the gym tomorrow".
I said, "Tomorrow? Can we not start today?"
She was shocked but happy. I was in the gym by 3pm.
In the gym there were two bars that are waist-high and about 10 metres. I looked at them and asked, "Will I be doing them?"
She said, "Yeah, about three times today."
I said to myself I was doing them six times. I managed five and I was disappointed. The next day I did them eight times. They said I'd be off crutches in six months.
I went for a six-week check-up and gave my crutches back. I still had six months of chemo.
Along with removing my knee, it would mean that the cancer wouldn't come back, and I was willing to do that. But the chemo was hitting me hard. I might faint instead of sleep and I was losing weight fast.
On March 10, I reached my lowest weight, weighing only four and a half stone. I hadn't eaten for 28 days.
We went to Crumlin where I was fed through a nasogastric tube, which gave me energy and I even began to eat a little again.
On June 1, 2009, I walked out of St John's Ward a happy man. I was finished my last methotrexate, my last chemo and I promised I would never return as a patient.
Over the next few years I collected over €10,000 for the ward. They looked after me and I promised myself that I was going to do everything I could to look after them.
I had to go for check-ups every four months and on February 15, 2012, I went up for one with my dad. We went for a chest X-ray and took it up to my doctor. That was normal. Until he demanded that the isotope unit open so I could have a CT scan of my chest. I took no notice. I guess I shut it out. He told us I had a tumour in my lung.
It was back.
My heart sank. My world fell apart again. I was angry. This was too much. I stood up and kicked the bin. I wanted to run. I fell to my knees in tears. I couldn't handle it.
He said I would be going for surgery the week after, on February 25.
I broke down the morning of my operation. I didn't want to do it because it meant I would be going back to that life, the life I swore I left behind, the life I was promised I wouldn't see again.
I woke up in intensive care with my mom next to me. She was crying.
"Did everything go OK?" I asked. She wiped her eyes. "Yeah, everything's OK," she said unconvincingly."
Why are you...?" Then it hit me, "I need chemo, don't I?" She began to cry again.
"Yes," she said.
I didn't know what to do. My mom never cries in front of me. I knew there was more. I wanted to hold her but I couldn't move. I have to show her I'm OK.
"I'm OK, mom. I'll be fine. Don't cry. I can do it again," I lied. I walked back into that ward with a sick feeling inside me, knowing what I was walking into.
The ward hadn't changed at all. The walls were the same, the curtains were the same, the airtight windows were the same and, of course, the same empty promises given to countless dying children by countless gentlemen in suits.
It really does make me ashamed of my government when they can get wages in the hundreds of thousands annually, but when one of the most important children's wards in Ireland, for some of the sickest kids in Ireland, has to rely on charitable donations to buy a bucket of paint and a brush. That is one of the sickest things I have ever come across in my short lifetime here.
I had three weeks at home to recover before my next bout of chemo. I was back to the old routine with my injection every morning and the vomiting bowl following me round the house. But now I had to put on a show because my friends couldn't see the sick Donal. We had some good laughs about the cancer, they'd always have a joke or two to crack and I even let them shave my hair off one night which was a funny experience.
On Friday June 15, 2012, it was my 16th birthday. I drove up to Dublin with my mom and sister for another scan. On the Monday, the Junior Cert exams, which I sat at home, had finished so I went to James's house with Cormac and Hugh where we were going to watch Ireland in Euro 2012. My phone rang, it was my mom. She said: "The results are back from the scan and it was all-clear, you don't need any more chemo."
I couldn't believe it, that all I had thought over the last few weeks and all I had gone through over the past few months was over.
I spent the summer in Bantry with my cycling coach James Cleary and the rest of the time in Tralee working my ass off in the gym and on the bike. I even changed my diet to help me build my strength and fitness levels. My life seemed to be perfect. I had everything I ever wanted.
Then one day in September while on a bike ride I was hit by a car. I was taken to Kerry General Hospital with a few broken ribs and bad internal bruising on my shoulder and leg – but I walked out of there the following evening.
The pain wasn't improving much over the weeks I was resting it. With the check-up in Crumlin approaching, my mind wasn't at ease anymore.
We went on October 16. My dad and Dr Capra had their usual slagging match and then he started his routine exam.
It seemed to all be going fine until I brought up my shoulder. I explained to him everything from the crash and he still wasn't happy. He rang down to the CT department but they were closed for repairs.
He then ordered that it be opened for my shoulder scan. Dr Capra called our names from the door of the waiting room and when I walked over, he said, "We've been on this road too many times, eh?"
That was it. My heart sank. I didn't know whether to follow them to his office or run out the front door.
"It's bad news, isn't it?" I asked. "I'm afraid so," he confirmed. I didn't break down this time, I shed a tear and asked what the prognosis was now.
He said he couldn't confirm a plan of treatment yet but more than likely, it would involve some form of surgery and chemo treatments but that it was unlikely it would work because it had failed twice before. And if it did work, it wouldn't stay away.
"So if it doesn't kill me this time, it will the next?" I asked bluntly. "Well, the cancer has become immune to the treatments, so eventually it will, yes," he answered.
That's when I burst into tears, that's when I realised I was hanging from a building, relying on my little finger. I couldn't get over it, I was so healthy, I had changed everything to avoid this, to avoid cancer but it still caught me.
After letting the news out that the cancer was back, the amount of support that I got was crazy, I didn't need any of that chin-up bullshit, because I had all the positivity and strength and support I needed to get through this 10 times over but it still felt like a mountain I couldn't climb, nonetheless God had given me hiking boots so I might as well start climbing.
Later I met with a prayer minister, John Delaney. He has been a very strong part of my faith and on that night we prayed together. I thought to myself that if this was what God wants me to do, if he wants me to fight cancer, if he wants me to be a symbol to other people, or if he just wants me to die then I guess I'll strap up my hiking boots and get to the top of this mountain.
Two days later, my dad, John and I were sent to Dublin for a PET scan. There was a four-day wait before any results came back. I was upstairs when the call came. I walked in on my mom on the phone. She hung up in tears and started to explain that there were six tumours, all growing aggressively and no treatment options available.
James, Hugh and Cormac found it so hard to believe because I was so fit at the time. So we thought about what to do next, it wasn't the logical thing but all we could think of was a party with all my best friends.
At the start of midterm, I asked my parents was there any chance I could go on a break away with my friends somewhere, and Halloween night, James, John, Cormac, Hugh, my cousin Eoin, uncle Brian, dad and myself loaded ourselves on to a minibus and set off for a week in London, thanks to my uncles.
Over the next few weeks at home, a lot of things changed. I dropped out of school to have more time for my life. I was given helicopter rides and a chance to drive a Ferrari which I took up with no hesitation.
As a family, we went to Lourdes. While I was there, I didn't experience much healing but I went for confession and met a South African priest. I asked him why God could give such an illness to young infants who have not had a life. His reply gave me great comfort: we are not in this life for answers, this life is for lessons and questions, it isn't until heaven that we receive answers.
I met for the first time with my palliative doctor and her team, after that it kind of hit me that these were the people who were going to help me die. It was like they were fluffing my pillows for a good night's sleep and it sunk in that there was going to be an end soon.
I got a lot of happiness out of Christmas, we had more house parties and my debs was soon after. I got to bring one of my best friends, Joanne, and went with James and his date for the night.
Some days I would wake up and I could easily appreciate the beauty of the world that I was leaving behind, although it does make me upset that I will never get to experience the feeling of living that I had on the bike or in the gym, or that I will never get to see my sister walk up the aisle next to the love of her life, or that I will never get to travel the world or that I won't get the chance to see my four best friends do as good in life as I know they will.
But I have to remember that God is using me; whether He is using me as a symbol for people to appreciate life more or whether His first two mountains weren't high enough for me, all I know is that I am walking with Him even though it is along His path.