'This has been the hardest 'mental marathon' I've ever run' - Dental nurse credits service for supporting her through cancer treatment
A cancer diagnosis undoubtedly brings with it an incredible physical strain, but the mental impact of the disease can be just as difficult to manage. That is where ARC comes in - a charity that provides support and a message of positivity for patients and their families, writes Orla Neligan
Grief surprises. Sometimes it's a gushing force that knocks the wind from you and sometimes it settles like a shadow darkening the edges for days like a low-slung cloud. It's a song played in the supermarket, an old text message or a familiar laugh. Yesterday it came while I was packing the school lunches; a lump in my throat and a tumble of tears. Last week it gripped me right as I opened the car door to collect the kids from school - those simple tasks that I often take for granted and that my friend Alison, who recently passed away from cancer, no longer gets to do.
When cancer diagnosis occurs it presents a choice. You can give in to the void - the anxiety, the fear that constricts your ability to think and breathe - or you can find meaning and a way to live the life you have in the best way you can. "Positivity is what gets us all through life regardless of what happens," says Mairead Mangan, who heads up fundraising at ARC Cancer Support. "ARC gives you the support to keep going, enabling you to make the most of your life."
As too many of us know, the horror of a cancer diagnosis is unforgettable. Medicine can help address the symptoms of an illness but like many diseases, cancer can leave a gruelling psychological and emotional legacy. In fact, many people find the mental impact of cancer harder to cope with than the physical. For the cancer patient or survivor, there is the physical challenges that undergoing treatment brings, then there is the practical that can include financial losses or difficulty performing everyday tasks, as well as the emotional upheaval. Their loved ones, meanwhile, might be battling with isolation, grief, loneliness and the stress of additional responsibility. Unfortunately, Ireland's healthcare system lacks the full 'recovery package' that includes support for the full range of needs including the emotional impact. There are many ways to help cope with post-treatment issues but often, without expert guidance; few people know where to begin. ARC works hard at trying to plug that gaping hole in post-cancer care.
"It's improving, but we're nowhere near where we should be compared to other countries," says Siobhan Kelly who works as an oncology nurse at the Mater Hospital and who nursed her sister Alison through her treatment. "We'd love to spend two hours at a patient's bedside talking to them but the pressure of our jobs as oncology nurses means we don't get that luxury. Having an ARC centre across the road from us is incredible." Siobhan regularly refers people to the safe, comfortable, non-clinical centre - a place where they can have conversations and forge relationships with people who are unbiased and who understand that they are vulnerable and need empathy.
"It's like having a major problem in your life, you solve it by talking to people, coming to terms with it, making a plan to try to resolve it," notes Mairead. "ARC enables you to do that, to become strong in your diagnosis." The centres - in Eccles St and South Circular Road, Dublin - offer a haven for men and women affected by cancer and their loved ones. These include a range of complementary therapies and counselling services. "Calming the body often goes a long way towards calming the mind," explains Patricia Pugh, head of ARC services. "When people come in our aim is to introduce them to what's on offer and assess what their needs are, whether it's one-on-one counselling, reflexology or acupuncture for the side affects of treatment, yoga or therapies to help with stress, worry and sleeping."
Children too can avail of the service. The Climb Programme, for children aged between 5-11, is an art and play therapy programme. ARC also runs regular courses to help parents discuss cancer with children. "We try to take the fear out of cancer so that it can be discussed freely at home and we work closely with medical consultants who come and talk to groups here in ARC," explains Patricia. "There are so many emotions that come with being diagnosed, we try to help people find the coping skills to process it all." The hardest part is often walking through the door. Patricia recalls seeing people sitting in their cars, day after day, afraid to step inside and overcome with that bewildering feeling of what to do next once you've been diagnosed.
In 2018, ARC had 12,692 visits, a number that has increased by 23pc since 2014. While there are more people surviving cancer than ever before due to early detection and better medical treatment, there are 40,000 new cases of cancer in Ireland each year and by 2020 one in two people living in Ireland will develop cancer in their lifetime. It's a staggering statistic that suggests the demand for ARC centres will no doubt increase. "We're celebrating 25 years this year but there are still so many people who don't know we are here," says Patricia. "We're doing our best to change that by working closely with medical professionals in hospitals to get involved in the early stages of a patient's diagnosis so they can avail of our services early on and get that much-needed psychological therapy. You don't have to do anything," she explains, "but knowing that you have somewhere to go, that you're not alone and that you can come in and have a cup of tea and a chat is sometimes enough."
Life doesn't go back to normal after having cancer; it's a journey of readjustment where people have to find a 'new normal'. Living well in that new unfamiliar territory requires survival skills, adaptability and resilience and a lot of support. For 38-year-old Pamela McLoughlin, that 'new normal' has been made easier through ARC.
"I don't think I'd be in the space I'm in if it wasn't for ARC," admits Pamela, a dental nurse from Ballyfermot in Dublin who is currently undergoing the final stage of her treatment for breast cancer. "Oncology is there to treat your illness but not your head. What I've been through in the past year is really only hitting me now and there isn't much in the mainstream system to prepare you for how mentally drained you feel." Pamela cites her weekly mindfulness and yoga therapy sessions and the continued emotional support from ARC as instrumental in her recovery. "I'm used to running marathons and, mentally, marathons aren't easy but this has been the hardest 'mental marathon' I've ever run. You can talk freely in there about how you really feel, things you might not want to share with family or friends in fear of worrying them, and nobody is ever too busy for you, there's always someone there to help. I think I'm a much better version of myself now and ARC has facilitated that. I've a chance to grab life with both hands now and give something back."
Pamela is 'giving back' by agreeing to be one of ARC's 'angels' in this year's ARC Fashion Show, which takes place on March 28 at the RDS Concert Hall (see overleaf for more details). The ARC Angels are women who have experienced cancer who bravely take to the runway to model. "I'll have to start eating carrot sticks," laughs Pamela. "I'm so bloated from the treatment and with my sugar cravings I'll be rolling down the runway. But none of that matters. As much as I'll be nervous and slightly mortified, ARC have given me so much I owe them this at least. Plus I've never had my hair and make-up done!"
Anyone who has suffered from cancer will appreciate how the disease can strip you of your identity somewhat and leave you feeling less than your normal self. "The treatment makes you feel pretty awful so it'll be nice to look in the mirror and see an old version of myself. I'm looking forward to that, although I might need the next size up," she laughs.
Fellow ARC angel Jacinta Heslin, a mum-of-three from Dublin, is equally excited about the opportunity to feel 'normal' again. Like so many, she was a regular ARC Fashion Show attendee but never imagined she'd be on the other end of the catwalk until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 and walked through ARC's door the following year. "Cancer changes your life," she says. "I experienced the fallout when my mum was terminally ill with cancer, both my sister and I were then diagnosed with breast cancer and our families have all found refuge in ARC." She's apprehensive about 'the catwalk' but is equally excited about the prospect of doing something positive after such a 'hellish journey'. "Plus my hair is finally growing back so it'll be nice to get it coiffed," she smiles. All proceeds from the show, run in association with Arthur Cox, will go to ARC support centres. ARC is also seeking volunteers to work one full day a week in either centre. The only skill prospective volunteers need is to be a good listener, as training is provided.
"As a nurse, I see the stress that comes with cancer, not just the physical and emotional but the financial strain," notes Siobhan Kelly. "What's amazing about ARC is that it's all free and it's for the entire family not just the patient. From our perspective, as nurses, we try to support people in the knowledge that your life doesn't have to stop when you're diagnosed and to help people to walk through the ARC door."
Among the sea of supporters at this year's ARC Fashion Show will be our little group. There will be an empty seat to honour our lovely, brave and magical friend who never missed a show. We will miss her running fashion commentary, her bright right lipstick and her unwavering positivity but we will take solace in the fact that she found great comfort in the company of all her great female friends, fashion and her ARC family.
For further information, visit arccancersupport.ie.