Moving on with my life after my cancer battle

500 survivors of cancer will gather in Cork for a special conference this weekend. CHRIS DUNNE talks to one survivor about her diagnosis
Moving on with my life after my cancer battle
Isabel O'Donovan from Castletownbere.

ISABEL O’Donovan used to run a sweet shop, but since her brush with breast cancer seven years ago, she is taking time to smell the roses and is finding life all the sweeter as a result.

“You could say I was a bit of a workaholic,” says the mother of two boys, Tom, aged 14, and Josh, aged 11.

“I am in my forties now, and since I had breast cancer, I made a few life changes and I like spending time at home now and with my family.”

Isabel, from Castletownbere in West Cork, never expected the shock diagnosis in 2011.

“The kids were young. I was in my thirties, in my prime really, and I was very fit and healthy,” she explained.

“Then, when I found a teeny tiny lump, the size of a pea, on my right breast, I decided to go to my GP as a precautionary measure.

“I was in perfect health otherwise and my GP suspected something minor, like a cyst. He put me at ease.”

Isabel, however, wasn’t completely at ease, realising that any changes or even minor lumps on the breast should be investigated.

“I insisted that I go for mammogram,” says Isabel.

“And when I got a phone call 24 hours afterwards; I knew that I was in trouble. I was called back to the hospital where I had some biopsies done.

“It was all very fast, two weeks later, in July 2011, it was confirmed that I had breast cancer. Everything just snow-balled after that.”

The diagnosis must have come as a great shock to the young mother?

“It was a complete shock” says Isabel. “It was my 35th birthday the week I was diagnosed. I couldn’t believe it, especially when I was so fit, lean, and healthy. I was training regularly.

“My boys were only three and six. The cancer diagnosis was a complete bolt out of the blue. It was totally surreal, another chapter in my life.”

She took a leaf out of her practical book.

“I just had to accept it and get on with things,” says Isabel. “I wanted to know what to do next.”

Isabel O'Donovan from Castletownbere
Isabel O'Donovan from Castletownbere

Isabel underwent a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction followed by six months of chemotherapy and then six weeks of daily radiotherapy.

“Everything was all so new to me,” say Isabel. “The reality took a while to sink in. I think also I was very naïve.

“Christmas came and went and I didn’t enjoy any of it. The treatment went OK and people told me that in comparison to chemotherapy, radiotherapy was a doddle. I found it gruelling it enough. It was a horrible journey, the whole process. And the journey from Castletownbere to Cork was taxing every day. The journey seemed never-ending.”

Isabel wanted to get on with her life as soon as she could.

“The breast re-construction surgery at the same time as the mastectomy was a personal choice for me,” says Isabel.

“The oncologist and the cosmetic surgeons both did a super job. I felt it was the right thing to do and I haven’t looked back.”

She does look back sometimes when she was younger; never thinking a cancer journey might be on the cards for her.

“I was young. I thought I was invincible like you do,” says Isabel.

“I was one of the lucky ones, who caught the cancer early and it was treatable. The cancer services and treatment in Ireland are very good.”

Isabel has managed to move on in a positive mode.

“You move on with your life. There is no point in pondering it,” she says.

She’s savouring every day now.

“Your outlook changes after cancer,” says Isabel. “You are more compassionate and you have a better understanding of life.”

She’s older, and wiser too.

“I am in my forties now and I’m retired! I can enjoy my life. When I was sick I thought of the milestones I might miss, like the boys’ communions and confirmations. Every step now is living the milestones.”

Isabel is tasting everything that is good in her life.

“I like to help others. Cancer is no fun, that’s for sure. But it is not forever and you will get through it. After all, I have the scars to prove it! A good attitude really helps as well. Really, the cancer journey is like any other journey, it goes in stages.

“It made me a better person. And I have found a much better work/life balance. Dave, my husband, is a teacher, and we enjoy quality time with the family and with our friends. It is like I’ve been given a second chance. I am going to enjoy it and I certainly enjoy the simple things in life.”

SUPPORT IS OUT THERE

Living Well with Cancer, The Irish Cancer Society’s free conference for cancer survivors, takes place in Cork on Saturday, September 22 at the Clayton Silver Springs Hotel, from 10am to 4pm.

The conference is an essential part of the Irish Cancer Society’s work and aims to provide information and support to enable people to live well after a cancer diagnosis.

A range of speakers share their experiences, stories and expert knowledge.

The free unique event brings 500 cancer patients, survivors and supporters together. Practical information sessions include: Advances in Cancer treatment, Dealing with Fatigue, Sexuality and Intimacy after a Cancer Diagnosis.

Workshops include: Exercise and Diet, Improving Self-Confidence, Mindfulness for Daily Living and Returning to Work.

Theresa Cronin from Carrigtwohill
Theresa Cronin from Carrigtwohill

Cork woman Theresa Cronin, a breast cancer survivor from Carrigtwohill, is encouraging other cancer survivors and their supporters to attend the free event.

She said: “I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in December, 2013. I had a double mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiotherapy. The Irish Cancer Society were a great source of information during my illness.

“I visited their Daffodil Centre in Cork University Hospital and accessed vital information through their website and leaflets. Thankfully, I’m doing really well now but it can be really hard to return to your everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. The National Conference for Cancer Survivorship is a great opportunity to gain some valuable information on the physical and emotional effects of cancer and how to stay well in the future.”

Irish Cancer Society CEO, Averil Power said, “More than 165,000 people are now living with or beyond cancer in Ireland and there is a growing need to understand and recognise the life-changing implications a cancer diagnosis can have for both the patient and their loved ones. Attendees at our Cork conference will be offered the opportunity to engage with cancer experts with a particular emphasis on the emotional and psychological effects of cancer. Bringing survivors together so that they may befriend and support each other is a powerful way of improving the lives of those living with cancer.”

To register visit www.cancer.ie/living-well email support@irishcancer.ie

The Cancer Nurseline is on 1800 200 700.

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