“I’m Sorry, It’s Cancer”

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Sheena McGinley shares her family’s heartbreaking battles with cancer…

When you know, you just know. The night before we were told, I lay awake crying because I knew that there was something seriously wrong with my mum – despite just having a cough. The next day, before we went in to see her in St Michael’s Hospital, my Dad and sister asked me what I thought was wrong with her. “As far as I’m concerned. it’s cancer.” Neither of them batted an eyelid. They knew too… No, they properly knew; they’d seen the consultant earlier that day. I was still the ‘baby’ of the family, so it was ‘normal’ that I’d be kept in the dark until we’d finished singing Happy Birthday around her hospital bed. It was April 24th, 1996, and she’d just turned 59.

After the candles were blown out, we went to The Royal Marine for a drink. I heard the words: “Mum has cancer” and I wasn’t surprised. I was, however, pretty damn horrified to learn that she only had four months to live. “Perhaps nine with chemo, but her quality of life will be diminished.” Just like that, the trap door opened; we had one summer left together. Under the circumstances, she opted against the chemo. She died on September 7th.

What type did she have? Well, the term “riddled” was bandied about. The post mortem revealed she had primary and secondary cancer in her lungs. By the time it was detected, it had spread to her lymph nodes and throughout her body. We knew she’d had skin cancer and the cough, but Christ, we didn’t expect this. They put ‘lung cancer’ on her death certificate. For the record, she wasn’t a smoker.

Before Mum passed, there were two other family members who’d died of cancer – my auntie on my Dad’s side (bone cancer), and my Mum’s dad (he was 85. The term “riddled” was used then also). After Mum died, there was a bit of a landslide. Her brother Joe was next (lung cancer, wasn’t a smoker). Another one of Dad’s sisters followed (bowl cancer), followed in turn by one of Mum’s sisters who died a week after being diagnosed.

It was October 2010 when we found out my sister had it. She was 45. It was Breast Cancer awareness month that led her to check herself. We were told she had “the good kind.” Given our family history, you can appreciate our scepticism upon hearing there was such a thing as a “good kind.” She had “Stage 3 in the breast, and stage 1 in three of her lymph nodes.” As you can imagine, all we heard was “Stage 3” and “lymph nodes…” Surely, if it was in her lymph nodes, she was a goner, right? RIGHT?! That’s it – Cancer had ravaged its way through our parents’ generation – and now it was our turn. As it turns out, were wrong, but who could blame us for being defeatists.

Until Ciara got non invasive ductal carcinoma we had assumed cancer was a death sentence. True, she had to endure the dreaded chemo, lose all her hair and go through extensive radiotherapy – but she was going to live. SHE WAS GOING TO LIVE. At last, someone in our family was going to get to fight this f*cker. And no better person than Ciara.

She had a lumpectomy and full axillary clearance, 23 nodes in total. She had 6 sessions of chemo every 3 weeks, and 7 weeks of radiotherapy everyday of varying intensity. Refreshingly enough, she had no real issues with the dreaded chemo, apart from fatigue. She did however have real issues with radiotherapy. She reportedly had “the worst exit wound they had ever seen”. Unsurprising, really, given we’re a herd of redheads who frazzle in the sun in seconds.

She talked openly with her children (she even chased one around the house insisting he give her newly bald head a playful pat), and often whipped her wig off in public when it got too hot – that’s if she bothered wearing one at all. She was a million miles away from my mother, who stifled cries in her bedroom, insisting everything was “OK” whenever I went in to try comfort her. I nursed Mum until the end and yet we never had a conversation about the glaringly obvious – that she was dying. How Irish is that.

When I told my sister I’d been asked to write this article, she was adamant that the following be included for the consideration of other cancer patients: “Please do not be afraid of using holistic treatments along with your conventional treatments. I was not recommended to do so by my Oncologist, but I went with my instincts. I would like to point out that I had been seeing a homeopath and an acupuncturist  for many years before I was diagnosed. I had faith that they were specialists in their field and that their treatment would not be counter productive to my conventional treatment… I am still here to tell the tale.”

The first thing Ciara said to me after she got diagnosed was “Let me be your warning. Do not let yourself go as far as me.” Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself clambering out of the shower and think “Man, you’re just a big ole pair of wibbling time bombs.” Every day, I look at my 18-month-old daughter and think “Christ, what genetic hand have I given you…” But dwelling is not productive. Doing, however, is. Check yourself. Educate yourself and others.

Denial gets you nowhere, especially when it comes to cancer. When it comes to cancer, timing is everything.

Sheena McGinley @SheeMcGee

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