'I say a prayer; 14 years after my cancer I'm still standing and truly I'm happy'
Cancer, says Brighid McLaughlin, is scary, savage and brutal. Yet it has always been with us. She tells of living with it and surviving it
Let me return to a wretched morning 14 years ago. I was standing at an aisle in Superquinn in Blackrock when I caught a glimpse of myself in a large mirror near the cheese counter.
The wig on my bald head was arseways to the left and my face was blown out into a big moon bloat. I had no eyelashes. The eyebrows I had drawn so carefully were dripping ink down my forehead. The fake breast I was wearing was lying somewhere north of my shoulder.
People were staring. Two local women peered at me pityingly. I gazed at them in a haze and blindly perused a tin of baked beans. I checked the best before date. Jesus, I thought, is that fecking can of beans going to outlive me? Panic hit me on a grand scale.
I rooted through my bag for a Xanax to calm me down. Why? I was simply terrified.
You see not many people know this but I have been in a strange relationship for many years. We do everything together. We bathe together. We sleep together. We were together when I made my will, aged 39, in a bleak office in Herbert Street.
Our main passion is food. On a rainy day we usually go to the Miami chip-shop in Dun Laoghaire for a plate of chips as the chips are the best we know - dry, golden, crisp on the outside, powdery on the inside. On the way home we tend to nip into the Kings Head in Dalkey for a glass of Guinness.
Back at the cottage, we talk folklore, stories, recipes by the turf fire.
We might have a cold glass of Gruner Veltliner, a bit of Cashel Blue, discuss the vagaries of deepfrying pomme soufflé. I suppose you could call us gourmands, epicureans. Whatever.
If it sounds romantic, it is not. My friends and family despise my partner. They know his past. They know the damage he has done. They know the countless beautiful wives, husbands, children and babies he has destroyed. Yet, I took him on. I had no choice. My partner is cancer.
Cancer is scary, savage and brutal. Yet it has always been with us. All of the chief cancers we are now acquainted with were known and studied by Irish physicians and called by Irish names. In one of Zeus's 8th-century glosses, cancer is designated by two Irish words, 'tuthle' do 'ailse'.
Eighth-century Irish brain surgeons saw cancer and TB in the remote area of Ballyhanna, Co Donegal.
Researchers from Durham University and the British Museum discovered evidence of cancer tumours in a 3,000-year-old skeleton found in the Sudan in 2013. Archaeologists found small lesions on bones that could be only caused by soft tissue cancer.
Sometimes this hereditary vice passes down from generation to generation. Other times it just arrives at your door like the dodgy cousin you never wanted to see. Life can be so bizarre. One day you are sipping a latte in the sunshine with your family, the next your days are being engineered by a team of scientists, surgeons and oncologists, charming ones at that.
It all happens so fast.
Today, I have something to say to all those brave people making whimsical compromises with this bastard of a disease. I have something to say to the hardy divils knocking back Losec, Motillium, Valoid, Xanax. . . heady concoctions of chemo that make you want to retch.
I remember only too well the wretched, distressed days when I felt as weak as a kitten with the breath of a rabbit and everything tasted of tinfoil. I remember a diet of frozen corn and ice-lollies. I remember sitting in front of my computer like a corpse.
More poignantly, I remember my late, handsome husband Michael, who had already lost his first wife to cancer, nursing me. We had been married a year when I was diagnosed. I remember the ceaseless weeks of drips and flushes of Dexamethasone, Taxotere, Adriamycin, I can never forget the Duphalac, and Mycostatin mouth wash, the patients, Aspirin white, composed of rugs, drugs and blankets. I remember the 'FEAR'. I remember the bully that suddenly appeared in my brain flashing images of coffins and funerals.
Listen to me now.
Tell that 'Bully' to feck off.
Some of ye will go into 'Battle mode', in your own words you will 'defeat it', 'survive it'. You will charge up every mountain in Ireland or Africa for cancer charities, you will paddle a boat from Dalkey to Howth raising much-needed funds for our cancer hospitals.
You are all fantastic. But everyone is different. Some of us need a 'plan', a 'goal'. Others, like myself, don't. It takes a lot of stamina, determination and energy to fight anything, a lot of guts. I suppose I am lazy. I just accept that I had this bastard in my life. I rarely talk or think about him anymore. I just let the relationship drift to a stage where he barely exists in my life.
In fact, these days it's more like a happy divorce. I have let him go. If he ever comes back I will accept his return with fearless grace. Death and life are the hazards of existence. We have no control.
I propose dear readers to give ye a few hints for your guidance. You can bin them if you like. But some of ye might pay attention to my humble advice for what it is worth.
1. Stop googling 'cancer', 'tumour', 'prognosis'. It's a waste of time and much of the information is inaccurate, often fuelled by pharmaceutical companies who have a vested interest in scaring the living bejesus out of you.
2. You can quit the juicer, the 'Magic Bullet', the kale, hemp, cacao protein boosters, the shakes, the Goji berries, the pricey shots of wheatgrass. . . Just eat like you normally would. A little bit of everything is the best.
3. You don't need to jog the arse of yourself up Killiney Hill or the Wicklow mountains. You don't do huge sessions of Pilates, boot camps or ferocious workouts. A leisurely walk, talk or swim is just as good for you.
4. Reconstruction? Recently I was having my annual visit with Professor John Crown, my much-loved oncologist. His reserves may be depleted but passion for his work lives on autonomously behind the screen of everyday check-ups.
He looked at my hollowed chest.
Did you ever think of reconstruction Biddy?
"Why would I do that John?"
Oh, just wondering. . . You are still very young."
I weave him a tight sort of grin.
He says no more. You see, having one breast has never bothered me I am quite proud of my scar. Reconstruction is an understandable option for many women, but I have seen some very poor results and it's not an easy procedure, so think very, very carefully about it. On a lighter note, despite what you may think girls, decent men don't give a damn. It's a fact.
5. Avoid cancer junkies like the plague. Some people are absorbed by the disease - particularly if they haven't got it themselves. They follow you with care, like someone studying a historical figure, merciless in their nosiness. I have suffered the following conversations: "Och, my mother had a lump the size of a melon. . ." and "My Minnie started with a bump the size of a grape, then it metastasised and went right through her so quick. She was half her size in a month. It was wild bad altogether."
I have no idea where the fruit analogy with tumour size comes from, but Irish people can't get enough of it.
6. I leave the most important advice to last. Say a few prayers to whatever god you believe in. Without him there is nothing. I am lucky to have faith. I believe in Jesus. He charges everything in my life with meaning. He is the perfume of newly flowered sweet pea, fresh mint, vanilla. The taste of lime juice. Sweet strawberries. The tang of lemon sorbet. The joy of bread and butter. A potato. John Fields piano concerto. Eminem's amazing music.
A few weeks ago I had one of the greatest honours of my life. I was invited to Ugool Mountain in Galway to take part in a family rosary on St John's Eve. Tom and Padraig Walsh, brothers in their Eighties, led me down winding ditches to a clearing on the rocky mountain where they lit a huge turf bonfire like generations of their family before them.
The fire was set on an ancient rock, cracked from the heat. Tom stood quite still for a long time, undisturbed but serious as if he was consulting his innermost thoughts and emotions. Then he sat on a rock and recited the rosary in the most beautiful Connemara Irish I have ever heard. It was mysterious. Profound. Simple.
Later, my little son and all the children melted marshmallows on the burning turf and as the sun set on the bog we returned to their cottage for tea and scones. I shall never forget that day.
By all accounts I am a lucky woman. For whatever reason I have recovered, elastic-like. Uncertainties are on more solid ground. I cook, paint, swim, row, tell stories in a cosy cottage.
I have my amazing family and extraordinary friends. I have a much-loved son and my late, adored husband Michael gifted me Jane, his hilarious daughter who has Down Syndrome.
Every morning I watch the sea, licking the pier at Coliemore Harbour. This morning, as I write, I am chomping some Donegal dillisk. It's a little bit tough. There is a high wind in the air, the pungency of seaweed, sandy stones and a cloudless sky. I say a prayer. Fourteen years later, aged 53, I am still standing over the same half-door. I once believed I would never make it.
But I have. Truly, I am happy.
You will be, too. Keep the faith.
Tell us your cancer story at independent.ie/cancer
In the Irish Independent's Health and Living Magazine - Everything you ever wanted to know about cancer but were afraid to ask
The Herald - What to eat when you have cancer
The Irish Cancer Society and Trinity College Dublin have teamed up to host Cancer Week Ireland, which runs from tomorrow until Sunday. Full details of programme at www.cancerweek.ie