Michael Gainey was first attracted to his wife Caroline because she is such a caring person. He didn't realise at the time that this caring quality would very much come to the fore when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014.
Michael, 62, and Caroline, 57, met when she was 15 as they grew up on the same estate in Newbridge. They began dating a few years later. "Michael was fierce good-looking with lovely, thick black hair, and he has a fantastic sense of humour and makes me laugh," says Caroline.
Michael thought Caroline was, and still is, "lovely-looking". They became engaged but the relationship ended when Caroline was 28 and Michael was 33. Michael later got married and has two daughters, Leah, 25, and Katie, 20. The marriage ended, and he and Caroline reconnected in the late 1990s and were married at Naas Register Office in 2004.
"We were much more mature when we met again and knew what we wanted," says Caroline. "I didn't get married or have children in the years we were apart, as I never met anyone who measured up to Michael."
Caroline is the second-youngest of Jimmy and the late Phyllis Burke's four children. After hotel and nursing home work, she spent 28 years at the Oral B plant, working in the planning and buying department for the final 10 years before taking voluntary redundancy in 2010.
Michael is the second-youngest of the late Paddy and Brigid Gainey's six children. He studied English and History at Trinity College followed by a HDip. He taught at his alma mater, Patrician Secondary School, for 37 years, working as a guidance counsellor for the final 12 years. He retired a couple of years ago.
When he turned 50, Michael got into the habit of having a general check-up every year. In August 2014, he went for his usual check-up, and the doctor did a rectal examination to check the prostate, the walnut-sized gland located between the bladder and the penis that secretes fluid that nourishes and protects sperm. He noticed that Michael's PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level was elevated slightly at 3.7. There's no agreement on a 'normal' reading as it depends on age and family history, and even healthy men without cancer can have PSA in their blood.
However, when Michael was tested again two weeks later, his level was 3.9, so the doctor suggested he went to hospital for further testing. The surgeon there decided to do a biopsy, and Michael and Caroline were shocked to hear that cancer had been discovered in one lobe of the prostate. "I was in shock and disbelief," says Michael. "I knew my dad had died of cancer in 1989, but what I hadn't realised was it was cancer of the prostate."
The three-hour operation to remove the prostate took place on November 5 in the Mater hospital. "Caroline was the last person I saw before I went to theatre," says Michael. "She insisted on moving into a B&B beside the hospital to be near to me. I realised shortly after we met again that I trusted Caroline with my life, and that kind of support was incredible to me."
Michael's beloved daughters, Leah and Katie, were a great support too, as were his siblings, to whom he is very close. As he lay in bed the next day hooked up to tubes and wearing compression boots, Michael decided that he and Caroline would climb Croagh Patrick again the following July, which they subsequently did.
The hope was that the cancer would be contained within the gland. This, thankfully, proved to be the case, but when the surgeon examined the prostate under the microscope, cancer was actually present in both lobes. Michael didn't need further treatment, so it was a matter of taking it easy and recovering his strength.
His advice to any man in his 50s or over is to have a full check-up yearly. He had no symptoms, so the outcome may have been different if he wasn't being regularly tested. "A lot of people underestimate prostate cancer and think it's curable, but it's only curable if it's detected early enough," Caroline points out. "I was absolutely amazed at how Michael handled the whole thing, as he was brilliant."
Caroline had a very tough year as she lost her mother a few months earlier, and also had successful surgery herself for a brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation), which is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain. Michael was there for her through all of that, and then came his brush with cancer.
The diagnosis left them in a lonely place, despite all of the support around them. "Men's confidence can be knocked for six by cancer, and they really need support from the person they are closest to," says Caroline.
They both pay tribute to the Irish Cancer Society for its help and support, and one of the most poignant moments for Michael was doing its Relay for Life at The Curragh. Cancer survivors wear purple tops to the event, and Michael walked the route with Caroline's 87-year-old dad Jimmy, who survived bowel cancer.
Michael and Caroline say the illness has brought them even closer and made them stronger. Psychologically, Michael feels he is able to tap into a better part of himself as a result of the diagnosis. "I became conscious of my own mortality. which made me more compassionate and humble in general. I don't take things for granted any more, and am so thankful I have made a complete recovery."