Battle of the mind - Virginia Kerr on cancer support
Psychotherapist and opera star, Virginia Kerr, explains how cancer sufferers and their families need emotional support, as grieving the loss of health and taking time out are crucial to a full recovery
Cancer is not just a physical illness that requires radical medical intervention. It can also cause serious emotional issues that need to be confronted so the patient can move on.
Someone who knows all about this is Virginia Kerr, who lost her mother when she was just 14 years old.
That trauma, combined with her experience in the emotionally charged world of opera, eventually led her to become a psychotherapist, with a special interest in grief management and "performance anxiety".
Virginia had an extremely privileged childhood. She grew up in Co Meath, where her extended family had the oldest privately owned bloodstock agency in Ireland.
Virginia was surrounded by horses, and rode her own pony to school on occasion. But, living in such idyllic surroundings mattered not a whit when she lost her mother to a brain tumour.
However, she is eternally grateful that Deirdre O'Donoghue came into her life, as a governess to Virginia and her siblings. Virginia says Deirdre was like a second mother to them, and she still comes to visit.
When Virginia was 16, Sister Peter, one of her teachers at Mount Sackville Secondary School in Dublin, ignited her love of music. Sister Peter had turned down a contract to sing at Covent Garden so she could become a nun. "She was another life-saver," says Virginia. "When she said I had potential as a singer, I thought she was being sardonic. But that wasn't the case, and soon she was coaching me."
Thanks to this inspiring nun, Virginia won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music in London, and so began her illustrious career as a soprano.
She has sung at Covent Garden, the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne, and at numerous concert venues and opera houses, both here and abroad. While continuing to sing, Virginia serves on the Vocal Faculty at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and also that of NUI Maynooth.
And, as if that wasn't enough, she has also become a psychotherapist, and has just published Stage Fright, a book which explains the value of psychotherapy for classically trained singers.
Over the years, Virginia had noticed that some singers suffered from stage fright. "I remember a tenor having to be pushed out onstage. But, once he was in front of the audience, he sang beautifully. I began to wonder what happens that people get so frightened," she says.
"I get nervous before a performance, but I don't become paralysed. So, nine years ago, I started a part-time course in psychotherapy at Turning Point in Dun Laoghaire. Then I did a Master's."
As part of her four-year course, she got a placement at Arc, a cancer support group that has centres near St James's and the Mater hospitals in Dublin.
She works there on a part-time basis - she also has a private practice - and has nothing but praise for the free services being offered at Arc. These include one-to-one and group counselling, massage, relaxation, and so on.
Anyone affected by cancer, either directly or indirectly, is welcome to drop in to the centre, and have a cup of tea and a chat. Even if they choose not to avail of the services, they will find terrific emotional support at Arc.
On a recent visit to the South Circular Road branch, I saw men and women, all of whom had been affected by cancer, gathered there. There was a great sense of camaraderie as they headed into a bright studio for their relaxation session. There are numerous rooms throughout the beautifully maintained centre to cater for the various conventional and complementary therapies.
"Hospitals cater for the physical side of cancer, while Arc takes care of the emotional side. Some people may need only one session of counselling, while others may need more," she explains. "The thing about having a cancer diagnosis is that it takes away certainty. When you lose your health it is a grief, and we need to acknowledge that. You go through your treatment and you naturally become very focused on the practicalities; you're having scans, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. You worry about how you will get to the hospital, how you will manage without your usual income and who will take care of the kids. So you don't have time to deal with the emotional aspects. Our lives become so busy, we lose ourselves.
"But there is grief, for the health you have lost, for life as you knew it, for the sense of certainty that you enjoyed when you were well. Or perhaps you lost a child or a partner to cancer.
"Some people don't understand why they feel depressed, angry or tired, but they're on a rollercoaster, and it can take its toll, emotionally.
"However, a time may come when you may need to address the emotional side of this experience," she says. "When I meet a client at Arc, I may see several areas they need to explore, but I will only go there if they lead me. Someone with a cancer diagnosis may not feel they can talk easily about the situation in case they upset their loved ones, but they don't have to worry about upsetting me. I am trained to deal with that, so I welcome them opening up to me."
Virginia says that while people's lives definitely do change when they get cancer, there can be some positive aspects. It may cause them to follow those elusive dreams, to get fit, to eat more healthily, to mend damaged relationships, to take up a sport or hobby, or to make time for their families. Or perhaps they learn to live more in the "now".
"We do wonderful mindfulness courses at Arc. It's so important to just be in the moment, because that's all we have," she says. "We can't do anything about the past, and we don't know what the future will bring. So it's very important to make time for yourself and your family."
Virginia says the need for emotional support for people living with cancer in Ireland is huge.
"There are a lot of people really hurting and struggling on their own, while their worlds are falling apart," she says. "We have a waiting list, but we do our very best to get to as many people as possible. One client said, 'Arc gave me a sense of sanity in a world that had fallen apart'."
Arc, 559 South Circular Rd, D8, tel: (01) 707-8880, and 65 Eccles St, D7, tel: (01) 830-7333. Both Arc Drop-In Centres are open Monday to Friday, 10am-4.30pm. To donate €4, text ARC to 50300. Arc invites people to host fund-raising tea parties on their behalf, see www.arccancersupport.ie for more information