Saturday 21 April 2018

'I asked the oncologist if I was going to pop my clogs' - woman (38) on dealing with cancer 'volcano'

Having been diagnosed with cancer, Orla Byrne had to dig deep to find the tools she needed to stay positive. She tells our reporter that taking one very small step at a time helped her cope with the challenges

Orla Byrne, ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland. Photo: Fergal Philips
Orla Byrne, ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland. Photo: Fergal Philips

Joy Orpen

Spend enough time with Orla Byrne (38) and you will walk away with a smile on your face. Her humour is infectious, while her wise, optimistic nature reinforces the notion that there is real substance beneath that winning grin.

Yet, this west Dublin resident has had to drag herself, step by painful step, out of the mire this past year. It's a challenge she will hopefully never have to encounter again.

Orla has a solid background working in administration. However, her greatest passion in life is sport. "I grew up in the world of GAA," she says. "I used to play camogie, and now I run." She does high-intensity training twice a week, but running is her main motivation.

"It gives me space to air my thoughts," she says. "It brings calmness, it releases stress and allows me to tune into myself." In 2014, she ran marathons in Dublin and Barcelona. "I went to Spain on my own, and felt a real sense of achievement and happiness when I crossed that finishing line," she says.

In 2012, Orla took on another challenge when she was invited by a former colleague (now a friend) in a car-manufacturing company to be a volunteer at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A few months later, Orla was invited back for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

"We spent several days at the rally in the desert," she says. "I felt like I was in a scene from The Lion King." Typically, Orla made friends in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. So, in 2015, when she was offered an opportunity by her employer to transfer to the region, she jumped at the chance, and really enjoyed her time there.

However, the following year she returned home to Ireland, and just a few weeks later, her father died. "It was a difficult time emotionally," she says.

As Christmas 2016 drew near, a still-grieving Orla went to her doctor, having noticed that her right breast was "a bit different". He referred her to the Breast Care Centre at the Beacon Hospital. Shortly after the holidays, she had a triple assessment, which included a mammogram, an ultrasound and six biopsies.

"By then, my breast had enlarged so significantly that I was in a lot of pain and my nipple was inverted," she explains. Three days later, she was told she had breast cancer. She then spent a week in hospital having further medical investigations. They resulted in a more precise, official diagnosis of stage-four inflammatory breast cancer. She learned from the oncologist that the cancer had already spread from the primary area (her right breast) to her liver, lymph nodes and bone.

"It was clear it was very, very serious," Orla recalls. "I felt the life draining out of me. And even though my mother and three sisters were with me in the room, you could hear a pin drop. I was so shocked, I asked the oncologist if I was going to pop my clogs. She said the main thing was to focus on what could be done. However, she warned me that the treatment would be aggressive."

Two days later, Orla began chemotherapy.

She had chemo on a Tuesday, every three weeks, for six months. "During that time, the traffic in my head was frantic," she admits. She would be absolutely exhausted for the two weeks following treatment, while the third week would be marginally better. She lost all her hair, including her eyebrows and eyelashes, but chose not to wear a wig. "You have to do what is right for you," she says. "Trust your instincts."

Orla went from being an active 38-year-old, who was working full-time and playing sport competitively, to someone who could hardly open her eyes in the morning.

"The fatigue was so extreme, I had to break the day up into hours and minutes. I'd just focus on getting through the next hour or so. It was a joy to read a chapter in a book without my eyes closing," she recalls.

Fortunately, Orla's can-do attitude kicked in, and she coped by dealing with the challenges as they arose on an ad hoc basis. She did feel somewhat isolated and alone, but she is also very grateful for the unstinting support she got from her wonderful family and friends. And she says that helped enormously. But ultimately, her biggest ally was herself.

"You can become very isolated," she says. "But that's also when I got to know myself. In the past year, I have made peace with myself. I learned that when you're up against a challenge like cancer, you have to be kind to yourself. I treat myself to a little online shopping; I listen to music, and I so appreciate the days when I can manage even a little walk."

As Orla's cancer is fuelled by oestrogen, she was put into a medically induced menopause. "Even though I'm just 38, I get hot flushes and night sweats," she explains. "It's now unlikely I will ever have children. Having that choice taken away is hard."

But as always, Orla marches on in her own joyfully defiant way. "I finished chemo last June," she says. "My hair has now grown back, and my energy levels are returning. The oncology team is putting together a treatment plan for me. I hope that the volcano that erupted last year never erupts again."

Orla says one of the most important lessons she ever learned came from a woman who was also facing a cancer challenge. "At the time, I was absolutely terrified," she explains. "But this woman said I had to understand that chemotherapy was my friend. Sure, the drugs can be harsh, they can really test you. But once I understood that they were for my ultimate good, it really helped."

Though it's only just over a year since her diagnosis, Orla has already run Breast Cancer Ireland's 10km Great Pink Run. "I was ecstatic crossing that finish line," she enthuses. "It was the most meaningful run of my life."

Following a scan in July, she knows, to date, her treatment is working well. But, it also has to be said that her positive attitude and unflinching determination to do all that she personally can to help herself is undoubtedly paying off in bucketloads.

And in honour of World Cancer Day today, Orla says, "We are truly stronger than we know. There is another layer of strength in all of us when faced with the terrifying challenge that is cancer. Allow that strength to envelop you, in whatever manner that works best for you."

Orla Byrne is an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland, which raises funds for research and education about breast cancer. For more information, see breastcancerireland.com

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