'Did you know you can have chemo safely in pregnancy? Well, neither did I...'
Broadcaster Evelyn O'Rourke on her remarkable journey from cancer diagnosis to the birth of son Ross
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
On Friday June 11, 2010, my world was turned upside down. It had tilted on its side just four days before that – more of that in a minute – but by 3pm on that fateful Friday, my world was definitely fully upside down and was suddenly and shockingly unrecognisable to me.
Let me explain. I had given birth to my first baby son, Oisín in December 2009 and was on maternity leave from The Gerry Ryan Show where I had been reporting for the previous eight years.
Everything in our lives had been motoring along quite nicely, until one day in April 2010, when Oisín was just a few months old, I noticed a pimple on my right breast. It wasn't a lump, or a bump but more of an outwardly sticking pimple, nestling right beside my nipple and it looked a bit funny. Not weird though or scary, just funny in an odd way. It resembled a spot that a particularly unlucky teenager might have on their neck at the height of their acne break-out so nothing too strange, or so I thought.
Having just been pregnant for nine months, I was used to unfamiliar lumps and bumps appearing and disappearing on my body, so this new arrival didn't seem any more worrying. That evening, I carried on undressing and thought no more about it.
Then on April 30 Gerry Ryan died. I was devastated at his loss and all thoughts of anything other than dealing with the grief were washed away. For the first few weeks in May, I stumbled around the house, upset at the loss of this important figure in my life and I don't really remember ever noticing the pimple again. Then by the end of May that bloody thing was still there, persistently clinging on to my nipple so I decided to go to the doctor.
I visited a women's health clinic, where I was told in no uncertain terms that there should be nothing on a woman's breast other than a nipple so this pimple required investigation. Still I was unconcerned until the doctor mentioned that she was making an appointment for me to see a breast cancer specialist in St Vincent's Hospital. Then I sat up and took notice.
This was the very first time that the dreaded, horrible, all powerful, nasty, black word had been mentioned in my world. "What?!" I remember calling out. "What do you mean?" It was probably nothing, they murmured but still worth checking out. The appointment – that I was sure I would be subsequently cancelling because there could be nothing of any interest for a specialist – was for the following week and so I spent the week peering at my pimple. Poking it, pulling at it, tweaking it and desperately convincing myself that it was shrinking so nothing to worry about. A week later, even I had to concede that the bloody thing was still there so off I went to meet the breast cancer specialist, Denis Evoy.
He was lovely. And reassuring. And calm. He told me that he didn't like the look of it, because there should be nothing there but he wasn't too worried. I went home and got on with minding my baby son, while confirming appointments to begin the investigations.
I was convinced it was going to be a cyst. I didn't even know what a cyst was really, but you hear about them so I had convinced myself that in this case, it would turn out to be a boring old cyst.
A few days later I had a biopsy and then it was the June bank holiday weekend and we weren't due back for an update until Friday June 11. We had a great weekend, the sun was beaming down and I really wasn't that troubled. A cyst I thought. Definitely a cyst.
By Sunday evening though, I began to feel a bit fluey, and not well so decided to take some flu medicine the next morning if I still felt awful. I did. So, when I opened the packaging it warned that patients shouldn't take the medication if they were pregnant. The warning was repeated again and again so eventually, I dug out a pregnancy test that was lying in the drawer and set about doing the test.
Suddenly, unexpectedly and beautifully, the test proved positive. I couldn't believe it. Oisín had only been born in December and here I was in June pregnant again. John, my husband and I were both delighted. Over the moon. Nothing could go wrong for our little family I thought as I hugged my baby and my husband close. Nothing.
And for four precious days it felt like we were wrapped up in a cocoon of love and wooziness. A little freaked out at the idea of a new baby coming into our lives so soon, but absolutely thrilled too. For four days this joy lasted until later that week, Friday 11.
On that day, John and myself were in St Vincent's hospital to get the results of the tests. My doctor knew that I was newly pregnant and a first trimester mother and looking back now, I can see how he brought us through the unfolding nightmare. When we arrived at the hospital we were gently guided into the consultant's room. He told us that unfortunately my biopsy had tested positive for cancer and he was now confirming a breast cancer diagnosis for me.
"But I only discovered I was pregnant just four days ago," I cried out. "How can this happen? How can my body be creating life, and destroying it at the same time?"
It just can. That is the simple truth. Your body is made up of so many different parts that they can all work independently of each other and usually there is no collision. For me though, the collision had happened. I was facing a confirmed cancer diagnosis, just four days after a confirmed pregnancy.
"What now?" I eventually managed to ask and was told that I was facing into a combination of surgery to remove the small tumour and then I would undergo a preventative course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to ensure that any stray cells would be obliterated. Now, this all sounds fine and dandy until you examine it a little more closely. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy? When would that happen?
More news. Did you know that you can have chemotherapy safely in pregnancy? Well, neither did I. Until Friday, June 11, 2010. Yes, you can have chemotherapy in pregnancy as long as it happens in the second trimester, so that the placenta wall won't be breached by the drugs. We went home reeling. Only five weeks ago, Gerry had suddenly died then we had discovered the pregnancy and now we were facing a cancer diagnosis.
It was overwhelming and terrifying but the one thing I knew in the midst of all the chaos was that I wanted this baby. I was 38, and being offered the chance of a second baby. So over that frightening weekend I realised that I was prepared to do anything to save this baby and to save me.
We spoke endlessly to our amazing doctors and support nurses, we gathered all the information that we could and I asked myself endlessly in the dead of night when the house was quiet, if we could really do this emotionally, physically and psychologically. Every time, I resolved that yes I could.
Two months later, after three surgeries, including a lumpectomy and removal of lymph nodes on my right side, I eventually presented myself in the Day Oncology Ward in St Vincent's Hospital to begin my chemotherapy treatment and I will never forget that first day as long as I live.
I was hooked up to IV drips with my cocktail of chemotherapy drugs ready to be administered and I never felt so lonely and scared in all my life. Logically I understood that it would be all ok, but emotionally, I felt like I was abandoning my baby and exposing them to a toxic mess that was cruel.
Even though it had been explained to me that other women have been in my situation over the years, so through amazing research and trial and error, they knew the drugs that wouldn't break through the placenta wall, I found it extremely difficult to remain calm that bleak August day.
But I had no choice. I was a cancer patient just like everyone else in there, the only difference was that I had a bump too. That first day in chemotherapy was bleak and dark but slowly I made my way through the treatment and despite all the drugs and trauma, day by day, my bump grew and a few months later, in February 2011, Oisín gained a little brother, Ross. Dear Ross.
Evelyn O'Rourke is a broadcaster with RTÉ Radio 1. Her first book, 'Dear Ross' is out now, published by Hachette Ireland.
Follow Evelyn on twitter @evelyn_orourke
Health & Living