Saturday 19 October 2019

'When she died we were like soldiers coming out of battle' - Triona McCarthy on the pain of losing her sister to cancer

Triona McCarthy (left) and her little sister Tricia
Triona McCarthy (left) and her little sister Tricia
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Beauty writer Triona McCarthy lost her 30-year-old sister Tricia to cancer nine years ago. Tricia was a vegetarian, she didn’t smoke and rarely drank, and in Triona’s words her little sister “never took anything stronger than a lemsip”.

But when she was 26 years old, Trisha found a lump in her breast. When she asked Triona about it one day when they were at home together, Triona advised her to go straight to the doctor.

“She was my sister next to me, she was six years younger than me, we were really close,” Tríona explains. 

“She moved in with me when she moved up to go to college. When she was doing her postgrad in NCAD, we were lying on my bed reading a magazine doing the whole ‘if you had money which dress would you buy?’ thing. And she just said ‘can you feel that weird thing on my breast?’”

“I was joking with her saying ‘oh my God you’re finally growing boobs’.”

Trisha’s GP referred her to specialists, but Triona maintain that they didn’t take her case seriously because of her young age.

"Unfortunately they never did a triple assessment. They found the lump and did a scan, but they never did the biopsy.”

“She got a job as an art therapist with the HSE, and she met her boyfriend so life was great for her. She was finally earning money and she loved her job.”

Triona explained: “She was small busted, and she decided for the big holiday with her boyfriend to Oslo that she’d buy a lacy bra. But she rang me from the hotel saying there’s blood all over my bra, I said ‘don’t worry’, I was always like a second mum to her.”

“The minute she went back to Galway, they sent her straight to get checked out, and by then it had gone into her liver I think because there was a shadow showing on her liver.”

Tricia was 27 when she was diagnosed with an aggressive Grade III form of cancer that required immediate treatment.

“Sadly she passed away when she was 30. She did three or four rounds of chemo.”

“She was just at the beginning of her life and career and romance. She really battled hard to stay alive. There were really hard times. Mum moved up from Schull, my sister moved home from Melbourne to be with her.”

“It was really difficult. You’re full of anxiety because you’re trying to be strong for your family member. You’re trying to put on a happy face and get through things.”

It wasn’t until a year after Tricia died (February 8, 2010) that Triona realised she should see a therapist. Al of a sudden, she couldn’t stop crying. The therapist diagnosed her with embedded grief and delayed shock.

"I did the totally Irish thing, ‘I’m grand I’m grand I’m grand. In the UK they call it the stiff upper lip. I felt I couldn’t be going on about ‘I feel awful’ because it was my sister that died. I really wouldn’t have been aware of post traumatic stress disorder.”

“When we were going through the chemo with her, it was like an arrow pointing every day in the direction of where she was going. But when she died we were like soldiers coming out of battle. She was the first thing I’d think about in the morning and last thing at night. It doesn’t get easier.”

“My life has changed so much but the message is to talk to someone. It’s very important to look after your wellbeing and mental health. I felt I wasn’t the one who was sick, but it obviously impacted on me and my life as well.”

She added: “My life turned around when I met my husband very quickly after that. I joke that I went from the girl around town to the girl in the dressing gown.”

Triona’s son Maxim was born on Trisha’s birthday, three years after she died.

"How do you make something like that happen?”

“I see a lot of her in my children. Minnie uses her hands when talking, she’s very animated and she loves drawing and painting, using crayons and paints, and Tricia was the exact same.”

“I keep her alive and we’ve lots of her art in the house. It’s the same with Maxi, he was born on her birthday and his second name is Patrick [after her late father Paddy]. He knows that my father died and we’ve photos of him up, and he does things that my father would have done.”

“It’s the circle of life, when you have children, you’re carrying on Tricia’s legacy or creative talents which didn’t come out in me.”

Tricia’s dad Paddy died from cancer nearly 20 years ago.

“He had been in hospital once before when he broke his leg in 1973, he was a farmer, he took his swig of cod liver oil every morning, and he was out on the land all the time so he was very healthy. Sadly he got diagnosed, and on July 4 he became independent of us as we say, and died on Independence Day.”

“He was ill for four weeks, I’m one of eight children, and we all rallied around. I remember I was head of entertainment and my sister was head of food. He’d been in hospital three days when he came home, and we stuck exactly to the hospital schedule that he had and we gave him grapefruit at 7.30 in the morning. We weren’t really sure what to be doing.”

“I’d love to have gotten to know him the way I know my mam now.”

“With my dad, I feel it a lot more now because I see the relationship my children have with my husband, and my husband has with his dad.”

Boots Ireland provides two free support services, available to anyone experiencing cancer, and their families and friends. Pharmacists are trained to provide advice and help in managing the effects of cancer and treatment, while its beauty Advisors are trained to offer make-up and skincare tips to help manage the visible side effects of treatment, to help those living with cancer start to feel more like themselves again.

Triona adds: “It would have been very helpful when my sister had cancer, to know can you use that cream? Are there chemicals in that? When you've no hair and eyelashes and your skin is falling off, it’s hard enough going through chemo without all these added difficulties that go on.”

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