Saturday 21 September 2019

"Going through cancer you have clarity - it is the only thing you focus on"

After Kay McKeon underwent a double mastectomy to treat three different cancers, she decided it was time for a life-overhaul. She talks to Katie Byrne

After her shock cancer diagnosis, May McKeon decided to pursue her dream of becoming a yoga instructor. Pic Steve Humphreys
After her shock cancer diagnosis, May McKeon decided to pursue her dream of becoming a yoga instructor. Pic Steve Humphreys
Kay and her partner Conor are running hiking, kayaking and yoga weekends over two weekends next year in aid of Breast Cancer Research. Pic Steve Humphreys
May McKeon practicing Hatha Yoga. Pic Steve Humphreys
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

In the last year, Dubliner Kay McKeon (39) has trained to be a yoga instructor in India, moved home to Ireland from New Zealand and moved back in with her parents. It is, by anyone's reckoning, a complete life-overhaul - and it was triggered by a life-threatening diagnosis.

In February 2017, Kay's cousin - her mother's niece - was diagnosed with breast cancer. It gave Kay and her sister Niamh (38) pause for taught, especially when they considered it alongside the other breast cancer diagnoses in the family.

Kay has lost two aunts to breast cancer: her cousin's mother, who died in her early forties after an initial misdiagnosis in her late thirties; and her father's twin sister who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39 and died of cancer of the spine 10 years later.

Following a conversation about their genetic predisposition to cancer, Kay and Niamh decided to book in for early mammograms.

Kay and her partner Conor are running hiking, kayaking and yoga weekends over two weekends next year in aid of Breast Cancer Research. Pic Steve Humphreys
Kay and her partner Conor are running hiking, kayaking and yoga weekends over two weekends next year in aid of Breast Cancer Research. Pic Steve Humphreys

"I thought sure I'll just get into the system and I'll get checked every few years," explains Kay, who was living in Queenstown, New Zealand, and working as a graphic designer at the time.

A few weeks later, she drove to a hospital in Invercargill for a mammogram, which was followed up with an ultrasound.

It all seemed simple and straightforward - until the doctor found a lump. Kay was in a daze by the time they sent her for a biopsy - and then came the dreaded two-week wait.

Kay rang Ireland to tell Niamh. Then she rang France to tell her brother Ronan. At first she didn't want to worry her parents unnecessarily but then, two days before the results were due, she had second thoughts.

"I thought it's probably better to prepare Mum and Dad so I did a Skype call. They took it alright - but they were pretty freaked out."

With a 13-hour time difference between Queenstown and Dublin, Kay's family were sitting at their kitchen table at 4am on June 21st 2017 - results day - waiting for the phone to ring.

May McKeon practicing Hatha Yoga. Pic Steve Humphreys
May McKeon practicing Hatha Yoga. Pic Steve Humphreys

On the opposite side of the equator, Kay was sitting in a consultation room trying to get her head around the words 'malignant tumour'.

"I went into complete shock," she recalls. "I mean, two or three days before the mammogram I was running in the mountains!

"I would hike up a mountain and run back down it so I was thinking, 'What do you mean I have cancer? I can run up and down mountains for God's sake!'"

When further tests revealed that she had three different types of cancer in two breasts, she knew she had two choices: sink or swim.

Kay had been practising yoga for five years at that point. After her diagnosis, however, she signed up for an unlimited membership and started going twice a day. "It was the only thing that made me feel calm in all of the madness," she explains.

Meditation and mantras also became part of her daily practice. She would fall asleep every night listening to the Devi prayer, and the morning of her double mastectomy - one of three operations that she would have in total - she listened to the Om Shanti mantra on repeat.

"During those times I remember thinking, this is really speaking to me on a spiritual level - like it really helped me."

Following the double mastectomy, Kay underwent an immediate breast reconstruction using silicone implants. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting operation, so she could barely raise a smile when the doctor told her afterwards that she was now cancer-free.

People often expert cancer survivors to be euphoric following an all-clear, explains Kay, but the truth is that the trauma of the experience doesn't heal overnight.

"When the doctor told me I was cancer-free I thought, oh thanks, I feel like s**t. I'm in agony here. I can't walk. I've got four drains sticking out of me. A nurse has to help me wash and I can't travel.

"I had been through this whole thing where people helped me and told me what was going on and now nobody could really tell me what was going on," she adds.

Nonetheless, she tried her best to focus on the positive. She thought about her first surgeon who told her that it was 'serendipity' that she caught the cancer so early.

"I remember thinking that's not the word that I would use, but it's true, if I hadn't gone for that mammogram, the tumour would have grown and I might have been looking at chemo."

Then she thought about the promises she made when she first got diagnosed. When all this is over, she said to herself, I'm going to reward myself by going to India to train as a yoga teacher.

Kay has ticked off items on her bucket list before. Years ago she trekked to base camp in Nepal as a solo traveller. That's how she met her partner Conor. "I would never have met a guy like Conor if I had not done that," she says.

"I have never, ever regretted taking a leap and following what felt true to me," she adds. "Never."

It was in this spirit that she booked a month-long yoga teacher training retreat and a course in Ayurveda therapy in Rishikesh. Conor joined her when it was over and the pair of them spent the next three weeks traveling around India.

Her time in India gave her a chance to reflect.

"When you're going through cancer you have this real clarity because it's the only thing you can focus on," she explains. "But then you come out the other end; you're given a thumbs-up and a pat on the back and you're thinking, 'What now?'.

"I was thinking, 'I've got this life thing sussed!' Clarity of mind! And then of course all your problems come back...

"You start quizzing everything as well," she adds. "I used that hairspray and it had chemicals in it - that could have given me cancer. I ate that apple and it had pesticides in it - that could have given me cancer.

"Or maybe I wasn't being true to myself. You're harbouring all of this anxiousness and ill-feeling and you're not being true to you and it just festers. Maybe that's where it came from. I don't know. Nobody knows..."

"I try not to think about," she continues. "For me, all I can do is live my life to the best I can live it. By doing that, if I end up on my death bed in 10 years' time, at least I'll know that I followed my heart and was true to me."

Kay and Conor have since moved in with Kay's parents in Glenageary, Co Dublin. A border collie called Sonas - "it means joy, prosperity, happiness, radiant" - makes their family five.

Kay always wanted a border collie and she has learned over the last year that now is as good a time as any.

Some Dublin-based design studios have been in touch with job offers but she doesn't want to go back to a life of endless deadlines.

Instead she wants to focus on her dream of becoming a yoga teacher, wellbeing coach and outdoor activity instructor.

It helps that Conor is a kayaking instructor. The couple will be combining their skill sets with two retreats in Conor's homeland of Co. Donegal next year. For now it's a "pilot project" with a view to becoming a permanent fixture.

Meanwhile, Kay has been kept busy running a series of pop-up yoga classes to raise awareness and fundraise for Breast Cancer Research.

"If my dream doesn't work out then so be it," she says. "But at least I've tried.

"What keeps me going is that even though this road is equally as hard at those times of doubt, I know that I would rather be on this road flourishing then on the other road where I felt like I was disappearing.

"They say you only get one shot at life, and honestly I feel like I've been given a second chance. Cancer gave me a warning."

Kay and Conor are running hiking, kayaking and yoga weekends over two weekends next year: 3-6 May & 13-16 September see: thesonghouseireland.com For Kay's pop-up yoga classes checkout facebook.comYogaWithKayBCFundraiser/ or to donate gofundme.com/YogaWithKay-BC-Fundraiser

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