Saturday 24 March 2018

Gay Byrne on his chemotherapy treatment: 'Every man's story is his own story. Every man's pain is his own pain'

The story of my chemotherapy - or a laborious keyboard typing exercise by Gay Byrne - who has seen his fingertips rendered numb by gruelling treatment

Gay and Kathleen Byrne with grandchildren Saoirse, Sadhbh and Cian. Photo: Fergal Philips
Gay and Kathleen Byrne with grandchildren Saoirse, Sadhbh and Cian. Photo: Fergal Philips
Gay with his family, Suzy, Kathleen and Crona: 'It is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived'. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Gay Byrne. Photo: Mark Condren

Well, that kinda takes care of the 'Ho ho ho' end of things. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I'm nursing my cancer. All day, every day. Diagnosed just about a year ago, cancer of the prostate and attacking my backbones as well, so double hip replacement as part of the package.

Of this diagnosis, and my removal to the Mater Hospital, I have no recollection of any kind, good, bad or indifferent. My wife and daughters say that I had begun to do and say odd things; there are many people out there who would say I'd been doing and saying odd things for the past 40 years, both on air and off, but anyway, I end up in the care of Professor John McCaffrey and his team and, as I write, I am two sessions away from the end of my chemotherapy course.

And I would say, off-hand, that there must be at least a thousand people countrywide who are somewhere on their chemo course. And desperately wanting it to end. It is not a happy experience.

Let me tell you about the chemo.

Gay with his family, Suzy, Kathleen and Crona: 'It is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived'. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Gay with his family, Suzy, Kathleen and Crona: 'It is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived'. Photo: Gareth Chaney

I go to the Mater every second Wednesday at 7am. I report, with about 14 other patients, to deputy chief oncology nurse Deirdre Stack. We recline on a chair, each in our little cubicle, and they attach a drip. By which I mean that they hang what looks like a transparent bag of water on a stand and they drip-feed that into us through a vein.

Except it's not water, it's poison, posing as medicine. It's the poison which is going to attack the poison which is already in our bodies, which we call cancer. So we just sit there and read the paper or listen to the radio or chat and that transfusion takes an hour or so and then they detach us and we're free to go. Done and dusted. Home for lunch. Easy-peasy.

And nothing happens. Until perhaps Friday, around lunchtime.

And there then descends upon you a blanket of such weariness, lassitude, depression, helplessness and hopelessness as I hope you will rarely experience. Think of the worst flu you've ever had and multiply it by 10. It's not that you want to go to bed: you want to lie under the bed, in the dark, with a blanket over you and just die.

I saw a brief piece of an interview Christy Dignam did about his treatment and he said: "Chemotherapy is… gruelling." And by God, never was an adjective used so precisely. It is awful. And it goes on for four days at least. Everyone generously offering help of all kinds, but there is no help; there is only misery which must be endured - and some people suffer much more than others.

Further, it is cumulative. That is to say, with every successive treatment the effect on the patient is more severe.

Gay Byrne. Photo: Mark Condren
Gay Byrne. Photo: Mark Condren

And then, on the fifth or sixth day, there is a slight turn and one begins to improve: appetite coming back, attitude a bit more optimistic, maybe something to live for after all, perhaps rejoin the human race. And stop crying like a baby, at regular intervals, for no reason. Very often in public and in front of family.

Until the following Wednesday and time for the next session. Into the Mater, 7am Wednesday. And up on your bike again and off you go.

Oh, I forgot to tell you about the tablets. Up to this time last year, I was a guy who had little or no truck with tablets, potions, lotions, fixers, medicines of any kind; never needed them, didn't use them. I was healthy and fast-moving and looked slightly pityingly on those who were pill-poppers.

Now, I take 18 tablets per day. In addition to, and as well as, the chemo. Eighteen. There are uppers and downers, sedatives and boosters, laxatives and their opponents, and in general enough chemicals to run up a second power station in Ringsend. And in the midst of that pack, somewhere, there is one tiny devil that has the effect of making me agitated - and I don't know what I'm agitated about. It is a most upsetting feeling, and you have to school yourself into realising that it's the chemicals, not you, which are causing the aggression. It is a common mood among those on chemo treatment.

I wrote all this stuff down about my cancer treatment because I had so many queries from people about the chemotherapy procedure. I'll send it to Mary O'Sullivan, who was my editor all those years when I wrote regularly for the Sindo. If she wishes to print it, good. If not, fine - I'm still glad I got it down.

It is disjointed and muddled, badly written and without style, but that's how my head and mind are at this time. (Yes, I'm familiar with the famously bitchy exchange between Gore Vidal and Truman Capote: that's not writing, that's typing. Fits the bill perfectly.) Take it as you get it.

Dear God! I've just seen Valerie Cox talking to Ryan about what happened to her husband on the Greek island, and its 18-month sequel, and it makes my story seem like a mild bout of mumps. But then, every man's story is his own story, and every man's pain is his own pain; you can only help the other guy as much as you can.

One other thought for you, especially if you're young and doing OK financially: for 30 years and more, I've been a member of a group in RTE who got a reduction in VHI premiums for paying in monthly instalments. And, as the years went by and the premiums increased, the plaintive cry was oft heard in our house: "Why are we paying all this money to these people and getting nothing in return?" For truly, we had a very clear run health-wise, even when the girls were young; we were pretty much claim-free.

Well! By the sweet mercy of a loving God, did we find out why we paid all those premiums! If we had not had the VHI to pay the bills, let's just say the financial strain would have been considerable.

We live, lest you've not noticed, in an appallingly, terrifyingly and disgracefully unfair society, and Kathleen and I happen to be the beneficiaries of that system this time round. Thanks to the VHI. I'll spare you the details. But think about what I've said. Those premiums, paid all those years, proved to be a bountiful investment. Medical treatment in this country is expensive: do not be poor and sick in Ireland - your outlook is bleak.

Here is another secret to be shared and a mistake not to be made. Learn from me: I thought I could combine my cancer treatment with all the other activities which were going on in my life, that it could be somehow grafted on to bits of radio and TV work, visiting friends, social occasions, going to the theatre and, most especially, turning up at functions simply because we had promised a long time previously, to be there. I say "we" because Kathleen, God bless her, was an essential part of all this. Without her, and Suzy and Crona, I could not have survived all this. More later.

But we continued to turn up on the appointed dates when I was feeling like a sick and disembodied dog and just wanted to be home in bed crying softly to myself. But we'd promised to be there. And there we were. Utter madness. And extremely detrimental.

So the message from that is: From here on, the treatment must take precedence over all other matters. Which sounds like a delightful leap into gushing self-regard and conceit, but if that's how it's gotta be...

Emily Hourican, of this paper, had a most horrendous cancer experience - far worse than anything I experienced - and in the course of an interview with this paper she said she had learned one thing: the body wants to be well and it's asking your help to be so. And that requires your full-time attention.

So from here on, all arrangements are provisional, all dates are conditional, all functions are subject to cancellation, and everything is dependent on how I feel at that moment - and I won't know how I feel at that moment until that moment.

This is going to require a great deal of patience and sympathy from our friends and family and contacts. But chemo is a vicious, treacherous treatment, and liable to pull the most unexpected - and unwanted - tricks at any time. And it is merciless.

By the way, everything you've just read is really only a laptop keyboard typing exercise. One of the many charming chemotherapy tricks is to render numb your fingertips - tricky, for typing or playing an instrument.

So I thought I'd get a little practice in, and what you've just read is the result. It was slow and awkward - I was a pretty handy little typist in my day - and laborious, but I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper and here it is.

As for the generosity of friends and family: inundated, overwhelmed, astounding - you know all the words which come to mind, and they all apply. The number of people who called to say any hour of the day or night, doesn't matter how far, doesn't matter who it is, doesn't matter what the message or the weather, lift the phone and we'll be there.

Crona and Phil live in Killaloe and so could not be in the front line, but Kathleen, Suzy and Ronan took over the entire operation and it is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived. And to think there are thousands of people going through this without that kind of support or anything like it. And as for the kindly, gentle and caring competence of the Oncology Unit in the Mater, more later.

Thus, so far, is the story of my cancer.

More to follow

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