Cancer, Covid-19 and cocooning... my story

It’s almost a year since Helen Cuddigan was diagnosed with breast cancer. Here she gives us an update on the past 12 months
Cancer, Covid-19 and cocooning... my story
Helen Cuddigan.

MY NAME is Helen and I live in the beautiful East Cork fishing village of Ballycotton. I have been cocooning, and have been off the social radar since the Covid-19 bomb dropped on the Irish hospitality world in the middle of March.

It’s a situation far from ideal for someone in the privileged position of marketing Ireland’s Original Country House Hotel, Ballymaloe House.

However, it is not only Covid-19 that has kept me from my work. I want to share my story to raise awareness of, and funds for, two incredible support organisations we are lucky enough to have in Cork: The Daffodil Centre (The Irish Cancer Society’s regional information and support centre) and ARC (Cancer Support Centre).

Secondly, I would like to emphasise just how important it is to seek medical assistance despite Covid-19, for non-Covid-19 emergencies. Your life might depend on it, and my story tells you why.

Last, but not least, I wish to thank my Ballymaloe family and all my family and friends for the incredible support they have shown me throughout my personal health struggles.

Helen Cuddigan of Ballymaloe House. Picture: Brian Lougheed
Helen Cuddigan of Ballymaloe House. Picture: Brian Lougheed

My Cancer Journey

In early July, 2019, I found a lump in my left breast. I immediately went to my GP who referred me to the rapid access clinic in the CUH. Within two weeks, on July 16, I was diagnosed with ductal breast cancer and started chemotherapy two weeks later.

My treatment schedule, under the watchful eye of Professor Seamus O’Reilly, consisted of eight sessions of chemotherapy fortnightly and my prognosis was excellent, largely because I acted so quickly… so, I was one of the lucky ones.

Understandably, both the diagnosis and the treatment were still scary, but having seen my little sister and cousin bravely come through after experiencing the same journey, I decided to face the first hurdle, literally, head first.

I visited The Wig Clinic in Cork city to have my long, red(ish) curls chopped pixie style to curb the inevitable stress of it falling out in lengthy clumps when the treatment started.

After a little cry, I felt liberated and in control… the Gin & Tonic hairdresser Vicky sent for certainly helped too!

There is no doubt — chemotherapy is harsh on the body — and I kept a detailed diary of how I was feeling after it. This helped me prepare for the next session and I learnt to manage my symptoms a little. At least I knew what to expect.

Helen Cuddigan at her Wig and Tash Bash at The Blackbird in Ballycotton. 
Helen Cuddigan at her Wig and Tash Bash at The Blackbird in Ballycotton. 

The Chemotherapy team at the Dunmanway Day Unit at CUH were a delight to meet with and made having to be there so much more bearable.

Throughout my chemotherapy, I was able to continue working at Ballymaloe House in my part-time role as marketing support. On a two--week cycle, I was wiped out during a treatment week, but was generally well enough during week two to go into the office.

So, there was a plan in place, and my Ballymaloe family being part of it, made it so much easier for me. They may not realise until now just how incredibly grateful I am for the love, support and strength they gave me throughout this scary journey.

The Daffodil Centre at CUH and ARC were with me every step of the way and provided an invaluable source of information, guidance and comfort. The Daffodil Centre introduced me to the charity ‘Look Good, Feel Good’ when I was losing my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. I attended one of their make-up lessons and learned that making an effort to look good made me feel better inside and outside.

The cosmetic companies who support this charity have brought smiles of pride to cancer patients and their families!

In October, 2019, halfway through my treatment, with a lot of help from some great friends, we held a ‘Wig & Tash Bash’ at The Blackbird in Ballycotton to raise funds and awareness for Breast Cancer Ireland.

This was something I had wanted to do long before my own diagnosis, in memory of my beautiful friend and BCI ambassador Emma Hannigan. The night was a huge success, great fun and a welcome distraction. Emma would have loved it too — I ended up being the only one on the dance floor without a wig (or hair) at the end of the night.

For the outside world, I teamed up my outfits with a colourful selection of matching skull caps (I never did manage to come to terms with wearing a wig), lipstick, and nail varnish to hide the black and blue nails, and a big smile and my ‘big girl pants’ (just as my good friend Emma Hannigan would have advocated) and got on with ‘life as normal’.

My chemo came to an end in late November, and thanks to the huge support I’d received in so many ways, my battle against breast cancer had been won.

The next stage in my journey was a double mastectomy to reduce the risk of the cancer reoccurring and I let out a sigh of relief when Professor Mark Corrigan, who had been so supportive throughout my treatment, informed me that the operation was booked for after Christmas, on Thursday, January 9.

Life appeared to be getting back to a regular ‘normal’ routine. And there was a cancer-free Christmas and New Year to look forward to.

Having always been a positive, half glass full kind of person, my cup was now overflowing. I was grateful for everything and everyone in my life, especially my incredible partner Michael and children Louis and Matilda.

Getting back to a new reality

All of a sudden, out of the blue I hit a slump. Without the regular supports of the medical staff, the routine of chemo and/or a pending operation, I felt paralysed by a dark ‘what now’ and ‘what the hell was that’ feeling!

The realisation that my mortality had been threatened began to haunt me, and the guilt of having got away with it, being one of the ‘lucky ones’, consumed me.

I experienced both feelings in equally dark ways, they felt real. It was at this point that I discovered just how important ARC was. I rang them and they encouraged me to come in right away. They immediately understood the way I was feeling, I felt so relieved. Feeling understood and ‘normal’ was such a comfort.

Helen Cuddigan at her Wig and Tash Bash at The Blackbird in Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Helen Cuddigan at her Wig and Tash Bash at The Blackbird in Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy

I was offered counselling and touch therapies and discovered acupuncture with Clodagh at ARC. I began to feel centred again and prepared for my mastectomy.

Clodagh suggested some acupuncture the day before the operation to keep me calm and I floated into the procedure, just as Clodagh said I would.

The operation was a success. I woke up with new double Ds and was minded by an incredible healthcare team for 12 days at Cork University Hospital. Having been involved in organising the annual Ballycotton RNLI Fundraising Gala dinner at Ballymaloe House for the past seven years, I was adamant that I and my new double Ds would be at the Gala dinner on January 31. The Great Gatsby-themed event was already a sell-out success and my tickets were paid for, in full confidence that I would be at the event.

Although my operation was postponed by a week, the event helped me focus on a speedy recovery. We made it to the ball and a record breaking €20,000 was raised for Ballycotton Lifeboat (RNLI), thanks to Ballymaloe and many sponsors’ generosity and the newly appointed dream organisational committee and 130 guests.

A health scare during Covid-19

Once more, it felt like life was getting back on track again, and I was healing well inside and out, despite a small mastectomy wound infection. I was coming to terms with my newly sculpted body as well.

Then the Coronavirus struck. Suddenly, everyone’s health was at risk and people’s mortality was threatened. Being immunocompromised, I was advised to take extra precautions.

With Ballymaloe House closing its doors as part of the government’s Covid-19 guidelines in mid-March, our Ballymaloe family was separated and work gone, and the world as we knew it changed instantly.

Mother’s Day was our last family pre-lockdown day out. I made a bacon and egg pie picnic and we headed to Knockadoon for a Sunday stroll. It was a day of blistering sunshine and there were only a handful of other walkers around sharing socially acceptable space, with muffled greetings through scarfs. It was a memorable outing and could very easily have been our last.

The next morning I woke with pain in my back and shortness of breath. I thought I might have pulled a muscle or perhaps the walk had just taken its toll on my weakened body. Both symptoms became progressively worse and I rang my GP, Dr Sean McCarthy, who suggested a blood test the next morning. I spent a restless night fighting for comfort and saw the nurse first thing Tuesday morning for bloods.

By 5.30pm that evening I was in agony and struggling to breathe. Michael rang Dr McCarthy and he raced over, calling an ambulance on the way. The blood results had come back and he was fairly certain I was experiencing a Pulmonary Embolism (a blood clot in the lung) which required urgent hospitalisation.

It was a petrifying experience, but despite my own pain and blinded by fear, I looked at Michael and the kids, desperately wanting to reassure them that I would be OK. The ambulance arrived and the two ambulance men were masked, gowned and gloved up.

Following Covid-19 protocol, I had to say my goodbyes to my family and was taken to the ambulance for assessment. All sorts of strange thoughts flood your mind at a moment like this. Painfully aware that the Coronavirus was just starting to become a challenge for Ireland and our healthcare workers, I felt I was wasting their time. I did not want to be a burden.

However, in reality, my situation was life- threatening. I was in CUH for a week, receiving treatment for the clot and IV antibiotics for my ongoing breast infection. I spent two days of this time in Coronavirus isolation (where I learnt what it truly was to be isolated!), whilst awaiting my negative Coronavirus test result.

I was not presenting any symptoms (apart from shortness of breath) but the test was mandatory for admission and necessary before they could put me in the CT machine and confirm a considerable clot on the lung.

It was a surreal week at CUH. Being the first of the official national ‘lockdowns’, my ward was quiet and absolutely no visitors were permitted. The incredible HSE nurses, doctors, carers, cleaners and caterers were learning and implementing new hygiene routines and adapting to work behind PPE — not an easy task. Taking bloods when your face mask is steaming up your goggles, and gloves impeding your natural instinct to find a suitable vein, was clearly a challenge.

Home exactly a week later and desperate to embrace my family, I was exhausted and emotional, but so delighted to be home. The fact the country was in ‘lockdown’ had no personal impact on me, with my body being in recovery I was incapable of doing much anyway.

Friends and family united and left meals, cake, flowers and treats on our doorstep and I yielded to relaxing, healing and cocooning. Every now and then, when I caught the news, I was overcome by the surreal sense of the world stopping with me. It made me uneasy and fearful for everyone’s health and vulnerability.

Helen now.
Helen now.

Cancer is a bitch, evil and indiscriminate, but the Coronavirus appeared to be all that and more, cruel and more aggressive. Each day, the death toll chillingly reported, the transmission and identification of the virus, a mystery. It is affecting us all, whether you have it or not.

Cancer, on the other hand, affects you and your friends, family and colleagues, but the world does still keep on turning, which, to be honest, I found an absolute blessing. It normalised things for me.

Two days after getting home, I saw my plastic surgeon Mr O’Brion. More bad news, he was clearly devastated to have to tell me that, due to the ongoing infection, the left implant had been compromised and would need unfortunately to be removed immediately.

Another challenging situation and another few tears. The procedure was set for the next morning, but due to the clot I had and the blood thinner treatment, it would be too dangerous to put me to sleep. The implant removal would be done under a local anaesthetic.

I arrived early at the South Infirmary Hospital, feeling anxious but surprisingly calm due to the strength of confidence I had in my surgical team. It was unfortunate that this infection had occurred, but no one’s fault. As the left breast had been where my cancer was, the mastectomy procedure had been more aggressive.

Walking into an operating theatre and placing myself on the table was a new experience. I imagined myself at the dentist, having an implant extracted rather than a tooth.

Mr O’Brion and his team kept me informed and comfortable throughout and reassured me tha,t although having one breast would understandably be an emotional challenge, eradicating the infection was the priority, and the implant could be replaced in time.

I was home that afternoon and I contacted the Daffodil Centre at CUH that evening.

Taking Covid-19 restrictions into account, Yvonne at The Daffodil Centre still wasted no time in booking me in for a prothesis bra fitting and took the time to let me speak about how I was feeling. A week later I met her and left with a new left breast and two pretty bras and a whole lot more confidence to face the world with my new shape.

Well-known author, Emma Hannigan, a friend of Emma's who passed away from cancer. photo Marc O'Sullivan
Well-known author, Emma Hannigan, a friend of Emma's who passed away from cancer. photo Marc O'Sullivan

Looking to the future

It has been just over a month since the ambulance took me to CUH. We all live in a different world now, and I feel like I am in a very different place in the world too. I have learnt to overcome health and physical challenges and been forced to consider my own mortality and life.

When my dear friend, Emma Hannigan, after a long battle with cancer, was given the devastating news in 2018 she had dreaded receiving for years, with only a few weeks to live she raised a phenomenal amount of money and awareness for Breast Cancer Ireland. She wrote her own beautiful funeral service and eulogy and wrote cards to her close friends.

The sparkly card I received from Emma after her heart-breaking funeral was full of love and wisdom. Among other beautiful things, she wrote: “Be loving towards one another and if that stops move on… have dreams and they’ll come true.” I believe what she meant was that you should be loving to yourself too.

What have I learned?

#1 – Don’t delay getting help for any medical concerns

Please be kind to yourself. If you are currently suffering any health issues, or have a niggling suspicion something is wrong, please do not wait until the Covid-19 crisis is over to seek medical attention. The medical system is still working, and you will be treated.

It might be some time before we are living without the Coronavirus and by then it may be too late. Early cancer detection will always give you the best options and opportunities.

And always remember that you are never on your own, support is always available on so many levels and in so many ways.

#2 – Focus on what you can control

I have always taught my children, and I myself wholeheartedly believe, that although we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to what happens to us —and this is the foundation for sound mental health. The Greek Stoic Philosopher Epictetus, was a little ahead of me with this theory, he believed that “All external events are beyond our control; we should accept calmly and dispassionately whatever happens. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.”

Not always easy, but nowhere does it say that you have to do this alone.

#3 – Accept help when offered — you can offer help when it is your turn!

The truth of it is that there were a lot of people that enabled me to overcome this challenging time and were there to pick me up when I was in danger of tripping up.

I realise now how hugely important it is to seek out and accept the help that is out there, but also how big an impact every small act of kindness can make.

I am sharing my story with you to appeal for help in supporting these two worthy initiatives ARC and The Daffodil Centre and to highlight that they are there to help you; it is so important to reach out and seek the invaluable help they can offer not just to the patient him/herself, but to the children, parents and the partners who are also hugely affected by a cancer diagnosis.

Be loving towards yourself and let others be loving to you and make sure you give yourself every chance to overcome the enormous challenges and emotional upheaval cancer causes.

How you can support...

Please make a donation if you can. Even a small donation can make a huge difference and help these charities continue to provide the vital support they give to so many vulnerable Cancer sufferers and their families.

Covid-19 is threatening the existence of these charities and I understand first-hand the important part they play in anyone’s life affected by cancer. I am so grateful for their ongoing support.

The Daffodil Centre and ARC are there to help you, but it is essential you reach out and seek the invaluable help they can offer you.

Please help these wonderful charities continue to help so many… every small donation makes a huge difference!

Cork ARC Cancer Support House 021 4276688

The Daffodil Centres / Irish Cancer Society 1800 200 700

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