Wednesday 17 July 2019

Louise McSharry: 'Yeah I had cancer. It wasn't easy. It was hard. But I'm grand'

2FM presenter Louise McSharry tells why she can't wait to get back behind the mic after her getting the all-clear from cancer

DJ Louise McSharry 'it was difficult to step away from work but it was necessary for my treatment'. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
DJ Louise McSharry 'it was difficult to step away from work but it was necessary for my treatment'. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Louise McSharry can't wait to get back to broadcasting. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Vicki Notaro

When broadcaster Louise McSharry announced she had been diagnosed with cancer on Ryan Tubridy's 2fm show late last summer, the news was met with great shock. Only 31-years-old at the time, the popular radio host discovered she had Hodgkin's lymphoma after months of tests. A "mystery illness" had been making her feel unwell for a long time, but doctors were stumped as to what was causing her symptoms until a biopsy revealed cancer in her lymph nodes.

After six months of chemotherapy, Louise chose Daffodil Day in March to announce via Twitter that she'd been given the all clear. In fact, the day we meet she's been to the hospital and seen her official report, which declared "complete remission." This Sunday, she returns to the airwaves to resume hosting her eponymous show on the national broadcaster's music station, and back to five live shows a week - a challenge she's looking forward to.

"I'm excited!" she tells me when we meet for coffee in Dublin. "I'm a bit nervous, because I've been off air for so long. I took an intentional step back from radio and from music, because I found it too difficult, so I just need to get my work head back on.

"I'm very serious about my work, so the idea of someone else doing my show was tough, and at the start I found it really aggravating. So I just thought 'right, I'm not going to do this to myself any more'. This is heresy, but I even unfollowed 2fm on Twitter! Obviously, I'm back following them now," she laughs.

Louise loves her job so much that she wondered whether it was obligatory to take the recommended break to deal with her treatment.

"It was difficult to step away, but necessary for my recovery. At the start I wondered if I really needed to be off work, but the effect of chemo is cumulative so by December I was too exhausted to do even little bits of work I'd committed to.

"I wasn't worried about having other people hosting my show, I just felt like I should be doing it! I'd think 'I wouldn't play that song, I wouldn't do it that way'. But that's completely unfair. I was really, really lucky because RTE were incredible, so supportive."

She's also eager to clear up reports that her job wasn't secure while she was off the air. "That was a total mix-up, and it really annoys me, because it comes up all the time. I felt really bad, because RTE have been so good to me.

"I was talking to Sean O'Rourke on air, and he asked me if I was worried about my job. I answered him and said 'Well you and I both know Sean, in this industry our jobs are never secure!' But what I meant was, the job of a radio presenter is never completely secure - I wasn't referring to my own position."

For Louise, the initial diagnosis was a massive shock. "I'd been seeing doctors for the previous six months before being diagnosed at the end of August last year," she explains.

"I'd had my appendix out the previous October and I'd just never felt like I got back to normal afterwards.

"I went back to work but I just wasn't feeling right. I was getting bad night sweats, and my period didn't come back. I thought I was going through early menopause. My GP did blood tests, but said they didn't make sense to her, and was still confused by the results of a second round. Working on the basis that it was something to do with my appendectomy, she sent me back to the consultant who did a scan, and couldn't see anything."

Louise then underwent "a million" blood tests before being referred to the infectious diseases unit at the Mater hospital.

"It's where they send you when you have a bizarre infection they can't figure out! I was seeing them for a few weeks, feeling worse and worse all the time, and losing a lot of weight. I was seeing a personal trainer at the time, so I thought that's why I was getting thinner!

"My appetite completely went. My boyfriend thought I didn't have enough energy because I wasn't eating enough, that I was tired because I was trying to lose weight. But I had no interest in food for the first time in my whole life."

After rounds of scans and tests, and ultimately a biopsy, Louise was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The diagnosis came one year and one day before her planned wedding to fiance Gordon Spierin, which is happily still on track for August 21 this year.

"I just never considered that I wouldn't be better for my wedding," she says.

Louise previously said that in an odd way, she felt strange about finishing chemotherapy - perhaps because she knew the treatment was making her better.

"I was thinking about it all today because I was back in the hospital to meet my doctor," she says.

"It almost seems silly now, how scared and upset I was in the beginning, because it all worked out in the end. Today I walked into hospital and while it's not exactly my happy place, I didn't feel grim. I thought, isn't it great that I haven't been here in five weeks!

"Part of me still wants to go up to the ward and say hi to the nurses, but they're busy, and life has to go on. You also get to know the other patients, so I often wonder how they're getting on.

"But I do feel I'm ready to let go of it. I'm happy to feel a bit better, and to get back to normal. I'm going to see a doctor for a check-up every month. They keep an eye on me, I keep an eye out for any symptoms. Before I was diagnosed I was seeing a doctor every week, so once a month is child's play."

Louise might be gung-ho about it now, but her months of treatment were difficult.

"The day after my diagnosis I had to go up to the ward and have a bone marrow biopsy, meet the doctors and nurses, and it was really overwhelming. Thankfully, my bone marrow was clear, but right away it was really scary - scary to see people getting chemo, who have lost their hair.

"I'd only found out the day before, so all of a sudden it occured to me - this is happening - I have cancer, I am one of these people."

However, right from the beginning, Louise was determined the deadly disease wouldn't beat her.

"I just asked, what do I need to do? I was worried about treatment, but then I spoke to people who'd been through it and they were really comforting. I had a bad reaction to the first anti-vomiting drugs, and ended up in A&E. I'd been told that your first round is okay, and it gets harder as you go along, so I did wonder how it was that hard already.

"But eventually that's the drug I went back to, because I was so sick with the others I tried - sick like you wouldn't believe, to the point where all I could do was lie down with a bucket. I couldn't hold my phone even, I didn't want anyone around me even though I was scared. It's literally a matter of lying there waiting for it to end."

One thing a lot of young women diagnosed with cancer worry about is fertility. Louise has spoken of her desire to start a family with Gordon in the past - did the thoughts of having chemotherapy worry her?

"Hodgkin's drugs aren't as bad for your fertility as some, I believe," she says. "They gave me an injection that in theory is meant to help protect my eggs. But look, I could have had fertility problems before all this without realising, so there's no point in getting really worked up about it."

Her response is typically pragmatic. She almost plays down her illness, having been confronted by much more severe cases.

"I genuinely feel really lucky. I don't want to sound like a bit of an idiot, but I have never felt as lucky as I have since I got cancer. What I experienced compared to what other people go through was nothing.

"When you sit with people who are sicker than you, having a really hard time and struggling to even speak to you because they can't breathe, it's very difficult to feel sorry for yourself.

"Yeah I had cancer, but I didn't have any complications. It wasn't easy, it was hard, chemo is hard. But at the same time, I have friends who had to have surgery and radiation. I just did six months of chemo, and now I'm grand."

Having received emphatic support from virtual strangers on Twitter, Louise has been permanently moved by the kindess she's received since her illness.

"People have been so amazing since I've been sick. I have been so lucky with the support, from people I don't know and people I do. The whole thing is a changing experience, but receiving that kind of kindness will have a lasting impact on how I feel about pretty much everything."

Now, the focus is on getting back into the swing of being on air - and on her impending nuptials. "It's all becoming very real - my dress is ordered, we've a meeting with the registrar and we visited the venue recently. I can't wait.

"I don't know if having a positive attitude helped, but I'm definitely glad I had one. I had my moments of finding it difficult, but I made a decision at the beginning that I'd just do what I was told, and I would be fine."

And thankfully for Louise, her family, and her loyal listeners, she is.

The Louise McSharry Show is on 2fm from Sunday April 19 from 8pm.

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