Saturday 25 May 2019

"I wasn't allowed to be with my child for 24 hours' - Young mum's world turned upside down with cancer diagnosis

Producing a magazine from scratch is no mean feat. Yet that is precisely what Holly Kennedy has done. She tells Joy Orpen how she was inspired to do so when her own life was on the line

Holly Kennedy
Holly Kennedy

If alchemy can transform ordinary metal into gold, then Holly Kennedy (34) must be an alchemist. She has turned her personal trauma into an enterprise that will help others through their own difficult health journeys.

It all began 34 years ago, when Holly was born in South Africa. When she was 16, her family moved to Ireland and have been here ever since. After school, she studied journalism; that was followed by a job as a graphic designer. Since then, she has worked for a number of prestigious companies, producing corporate and business magazines.

Along the way, she met Derek Kennedy (who now owns a garage) and the pair have been together ever since. Adding to their happiness was the arrival, three years ago, of baby Andrew. Not surprisingly, they are besotted with this adorable blue-eyed, blond little boy. But there was a very dark time soon after his birth when Holly thought Andrew might not get the opportunity to know his mother.

Holly recalls the beginnings of her ordeal in November 2016. "I was on maternity leave from my job as a graphic designer. Apart from some postnatal anxiety, things were going really well. But because I was anxious, I checked my breasts regularly for mastitis. And that's when I came across a lump," she says, adding, "When it still hadn't gone two weeks later, I went to my GP, who referred me to the Breast Care Clinic at St James's Hospital."

When, three weeks later, Holly still hadn't heard anything, she phoned the hospital and was told she would have to wait until February for an appointment. But she knew instinctively that her problem was urgent. In the end, she managed to get a slot for December 10, thanks to a cancellation.

So, two weeks before Christmas, Holly presented herself for a triple assessment, involving a manual examination, an ultrasound and a biopsy. During the ultrasound, the radiologist summoned a consultant. Holly says the consultant asked her where her husband was, and when she replied that he was waiting in the car with the baby, the consultant suggested he be asked to join them.

Following a biopsy, Holly was told that in all likelihood she did have breast cancer; however, they would have to wait for the results of the biopsy to get the full picture. In the meantime, she was told to stop breastfeeding.

"I couldn't believe this was happening," says Holly. "My health had never let me down before. I didn't stop breastfeeding, because I couldn't believe I had cancer. I was clearly in denial - it was a nightmare." A week later, Holly was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). This was followed by a meeting to formulate a treatment plan.

She soon learned that, unlike some other forms of breast cancer, TNBC is not hormone related. And even though it is a particularly aggressive form of cancer, if caught early, it often responds well to chemotherapy. But first, a full body scan needed to be done to see if the disease had spread.

"I wasn't allowed to be with my child for 24 hours, as I was radioactive after the scan," explains Holly. Her life was now in full crisis mode. "Up until then, I was a happy person. But now I felt my life had been replaced with a countdown clock. I thought I was going to die, and that my baby would never get to know me. I was filled with anxiety and fear, and the only relief I got was when I managed to sleep. I thought I would never be happy again," she says.

But Holly's doctors had other plans for her. Fortunately, the cancer hadn't spread, and chemotherapy could begin straight away. "They told me I was young, fit and that they were confident I could cope with the hardest treatment plan they had for TNBC," recalls Holly.

So, once every two weeks, she would spend a whole day in the oncology ward. "By then, the baby was on the bottle. I would be so wiped out for the next couple of days, all I could do was move from bed to couch and back again. Derek had to do everything: nappy changing, cooking, cleaning, the lot. His work took a back seat for a whole year," Holly says. In spite of his hectic workload, Derek also attended all of Holly's meetings with her doctors and all her treatments.

One of her most abiding memories of that gruelling time was her sense of aloneness. "I felt like I was the only woman in her 30s who had cancer. I felt very isolated from family and friends. I'd spend the whole day in oncology, having tests and chemo, with nothing at all to read except medical brochures. Then the thought struck me that maybe it was up to me to do something about that. With my background, how could this not be for me?"

Holly hit on the idea of publishing a website and magazine for people diagnosed with cancer. She knew from the start that it wouldn't be about medical issues - the cancer charities already had those well covered. However, both platforms could promote a "positive inspiration for a happy life after a cancer diagnosis".

The word 'happy' is crucial. It's an emotion Holly thought she would never know again. But here she is, beaming away, in spite of 13 months of gruelling treatment, which included 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, radiotherapy and six months taking a chemotherapy pill. So she has named her online and hard-copy magazine Happy. "My life is very, very different now. I'm doing things on my own terms. And certainly, health has become a really big issue for me," she says, adding, "The magazine idea also gave me a purpose, something positive to work on, and it has helped to bring me back to life and to make sense of my diagnosis. Given my background in writing and design, this felt like something that was meant to be."

The website is innovative in that it publishes daily, forming an ongoing support resource for patients - "because cancer is every day, not just on the days you can get to a cancer support centre. Now I feel like a better version of me, stronger than before," Holly says.

The recently published first edition of Happy is full of articles about healthy eating, wellness from within, natural beauty products, positive thinking and holistic getaways.

"I am motivated by my readers and their feedback," concludes Holly. "My main purpose is to support all those who are struggling with a cancer diagnosis. I want them to know they are not alone and that they will find happiness again."

Some 10,000 copies of 'Happy' have been delivered to 32 hospitals and cancer support centres throughout Ireland. For more information, see happymagazine.ie

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