Cork mothers united in fighting cancer

Cork mothers united in fighting cancer
Sisters Valerie O'Sullivan (left) and Sylvia Brosnan with their mother Vera McCarthy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A BRAVE mother of three is being hailed an inspiration in the midst of a battle with inoperable cancer — which she started two weeks after her sister beat the disease.

Valerie O’Sullivan had just overcome breast cancer when her sister, Sylvia Brosnan, of Dublin Hill, found out she had stomach cancer.

Now, on the eve of Mother’s Day, they and their mum Vera McCarthy are united once again in the face of adversity.

It all started in 2012 when Valerie underwent brain surgery for a rare condition called Moyamoya disease, which results in blocked arteries at the base of the brain.

“I still have the videos of my little boy shaving my hair for the operation,” said Valerie. Her diagnosis of stage three breast cancer came on the weekend of her birthday in November, 2015.

“That whole entire time I never cried,” she said. However, that all changed when her sister Sylvia was diagnosed last December. “When I heard, I thought I was going to vomit,” Valerie said.

Sylvia and husband Michael have three sons, Seán, 14, Nathan, 12, and Darren, 9. She recalls the warning signs of her illness.

“I was at a wedding last July when I felt what I thought was indigestion,” Sylvia said. “I went outside and had to hold on to the handle of the car just to stay upright.

I was grand for a few weeks after that. I was given tablets by my doctor but it continued to get worse.

“It got to the stage where even water made 

It was Sylvia’s GP who realised there was something very wrong. “He pressed down on a bump in my stomach and I almost hit the roof with pain.”

After a CAT scan, endoscopy and colonoscopy, Sylvia finally received a diagnosis and Michael said: “We were told the cancer was inoperable and that there were secondaries. They also mentioned the lymph nodes. Of course, we were devastated.

“From the very start, we made a conscious decision to be open with people. Sylvia’s only option was to try a new chemo’ treatment. We didn’t want the kids to hear it from someone else so we told them straight away. Our intention was to be open about the illness so we talked about it as much as possible.”

Sisters Valerie O'Sullivan (left) with her sons Evan (11) and David (6) and Sylvia Brosnan with her husband Michael and sons Sean (14), Darren (9) and Nathan (12). Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Sisters Valerie O'Sullivan (left) with her sons Evan (11) and David (6) and Sylvia Brosnan with her husband Michael and sons Sean (14), Darren (9) and Nathan (12). Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Sylvia said her initial reaction was one of “complete shock,” but added: “Once I knew there was a plan in place I felt that little bit more settled.”

Her positivity has astounded hospital staff and friends alike.

“I can remember one particular night in the hospital. It was 3am and I couldn’t sleep so I took a walk down the hospital corridor. I decided to try out my new Mickey Mouse slippers and started skating down the corridor just to amuse myself. The nurses caught sight of me and asked if I was cleaning the floors. Anyone who sees me in there says I don’t look like a cancer patient. I’m normally smiling or dancing.”

The mother-of-three has managed to keep strong for her children in spite of constant obstacles.

“The most poignant time was when I returned home from hospital on Christmas Eve,” she said. “Darren wasn’t coming near me so we eventually asked why. He admitted he was afraid he might catch the cancer. He had come to the conclusion that I must have caught it from Valerie and feared he might be next.”

Sylvia did her best to create a positive atmosphere last Christmas. “I was on such heavy medication that I don’t remember the kids opening their presents. I Facetimed the family from the hospital bed wearing antlers and have absolutely no memory of it. It was like being in a coma. When I see the video played back, it’s like I’m watching someone else.”

Sylvia and sister, Valerie’s, sense of humour often helps them through the darker days.

“No matter what, we’ve always had a sense of humour and a lot of time I think this is what gets us through,” Valerie said. “Sylvia was always mocking me, even while I went through my illness. Now we’ll joke that this is what she gets for slagging me.”

The outpouring of support from neighbours and friends touched the family deeply.

Sylvia’s husband Michael said: “The amount of Mass cards we have received from neighbours and members of St Nicks and Glen Rovers is overwhelming. Sylvia has now finished her chemo treatment so we are waiting to hear what the next port of call will be. It could be that Sylvia will need her stomach removed, but nothing is certain yet.”

He admits that some days are painfully difficult.

“When you’re going through something like this, the smallest things can make you break down,” he said. “You might be listening to a song you’ve heard a thousand times before when its words suddenly take on new meaning.”

Sylvia said she was also heartened by kind gestures from friends, family and neighbours.

“I’d often come home from chemo’ to find there had been house fairies,” she laughed. “That’s how good natured our family, friends and neighbours are.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content