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I survived breast cancer but ended up in therapy

Two years after beating cancer and undergoing breast reconstruction, Marie Carberry is only now coming to terms with her life-changing experience.

Breast Cancer Awareness month has crept up on me again and, this year, I almost forgot about it completely. This has nothing to do with a wish to push any cancer-related issues to the back of my mind but more to do with that annoying condition known as Chemo Brain.

Chemo Brain is a by-product of chemotherapy that, until the past couple of years, was treated with scepticism by a majority of oncologists who figured that the complete and utter forgetfulness that seems to afflict a lot of chemo patients was all in our heads. People like me, however, know now that it's more than that.

Before chemotherapy and, as a busy mother and part-time worker, I had the usual bouts of forgetfulness like mislaying my keys or forgetting to take something out of the oven. After chemo, however, memory loss stepped up several gears. I was now having complete blanks about more serious things like picking up my children from school, trying to remember which side of the road I was supposed to be driving on and leaving my handbag on the back of the door in Dublin Airport.

In that first year, I even forgot the milestone of my mother's 75th birthday. It has not got any easier. Two weeks ago I forgot my father's 80th birthday celebration. My mother texted me around noon to remind me of the special occasion. "I remembered," I quickly texted back. "I'm on my way over now." As I got into the car I reminded myself to pick up a card in the local shop. Needless to say, I drove straight by the shop because, yes. I forgot.



Condition

Every appointment I make now has to be noted immediately. If not, the date will go quickly out of my head and I won't turn up. Birthdays, anniversaries, even funerals sail over my head unless I'm prompted at least a dozen times.

My phone is handy for reminders as is the kitchen message board and just in case they fail, a Post-it attached to my forehead. Thankfully, Chemo Brain is now a recognised condition which can occur as a result of chemotherapy.

Karen Syrjala, one of the co-directors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research facility in Seattle, who conducted a study on chemo brain, says: "It's clearly established now that Chemo Brain does exist and can continue long term.

The real issue here is that recovery from cancer treatment is not a one-year process but a two-to five-year process.

"People need to understand the extent to which the cells in their bodies have really been compromised not only by cancer but also by the treatment."

"Another three years of forgetting my own name," I moaned to my family. The children just rolled their eyes, so used are they to being left on the side of the road waiting in vain for me to pick them up.



Diagnosis

One thing I won't ever forget however is, more than two years ago, being told that the lump under my arm was breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. I wasn't the only one to receive a diagnosis that year.

Annually, about 2,000 women in Ireland are given a diagnosis of breast cancer and Irish women have a one in 12 chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Seventy-four per cent of these women discover a lump themselves.

Even though I also found the lump myself I didn't put it down to breast cancer because the lump was under my arm rather than on my breast. Despite being 'aware' of breast cancer, I failed to make the connection between my arm and breast. I left it for a couple of weeks, thinking it might be a cyst and that it would go away on its own. It didn't, so I took myself off to the GP.

Luckily, my GP, Dr Gaffney, was breast aware and made an appointment with a breast consultant straight away.

Two weeks later, after a biopsy and a series of scans, I was in hospital having my left breast and all the lymph nodes under my arm removed. The speed at which everything happened left me little time to even think of what was happening.

Eight sessions of chemotherapy and 25 sessions of radiotherapy followed and then, well, that was it. Six months after I discovered the lump, I found myself outside the hospital door, minus a breast but with the rest of me still relatively intact. As I walked to the car, I made a solemn promise that that would be the last time I would ever darken the doorstep of a hospital again.

A year later, I found myself being prepped in an operating theatre, having made the decision to go ahead with reconstructive surgery. Never say never.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer has been a nightmare, a rollercoaster, and a life-changing event all rolled into one. There are many physical scars but they fade in time. The mental scars are harder to deal with.

I started watching the Emmy-award-winning series Breaking Bad recently. It is about a chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and starts making crystal meth to make money to support his family when he dies.

It is a well-made, thought-provoking programme that doesn't shy away from the issues, which was part of the problem for me.

When it came to the main character having chemotherapy and the graphic displays of nausea, vomiting and the subsequent loss of hair, I found myself in tears. Not for him, but for me.

It brought it all back, the diagnosis, the prognosis, the look on my kids' faces when I told them, watching clumps of hair blocking the plug hole in the shower and the sheer shock of suddenly being in that group that is forever labelled 'cancer survivors'.

When I got over the initial shock I found that I was mad as hell. I hated being called a cancer survivor; I loathed the phrase, 'battling with cancer'.

When someone told me I should treat cancer as 'a gift', I snapped the head off them.

Thankfully, I got over myself but watching Breaking Bad unleashed something in me that I had tried to dampen down. I realised that I was scared -- scared that I had once had cancer and scared that it could come back.

It's hard to talk about these things with your family. What they want most of all is for you to be better and to move on but that is so much easier said than done. Other women, who have had cancer, feel the same. The more they bring up the topic the less their families want to know. "But you are better now," they say. "Put it to the back of your mind."

The thing about cancer is that it will only stay in the back of your mind for so long. Two years after I had finished treatment I suddenly found myself unable to sleep and going through the days with a nagging feeling of dread.



Shock

I know now that it was a form of delayed shock. It was suggested to me that I might be a suitable candidate for Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).

NLP is a process that helps rewire the brain to behave in a more positive manner. To be honest, it all sounded a bit New Age, airy fairy to me but, in the end, I decided to give it a whirl.

I only had the one session but it has made a huge difference to me. It is all about visualisation, substituting negative images for positive ones and subliminal messaging (this involves the therapist recording a tape which you play as you are about to go to sleep at night). I don't fully understand the process but I do understand that I am starting to feel like my old self again and that sense of dread is gone.

Having cancer is one thing. Getting over it is another. I don't think I will ever be able to look on it as 'a gift', but, like the lady said, cancer recovery can be up to a five-year process.

Now if I could just remember where I parked the car ...

If you would like to speak to a specialist nurse in confidence about breast awareness please call the Cancer Information Helpline on Freephone 1800 200 700. It is open Monday to Thursday, from 9am to 7pm, and Friday, from 9am to 5pm, or log onto www.cancer.ie/action/breastawareness


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