THE words ‘luck’ and ‘lucky’ frequently tumble from the lips of Shonagh O’Malley during our conversation.
It is remarkable to hear, considering this Cork woman has been through the mill with a breast cancer diagnosis, a mastectomy, and the ensuing chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
But she never once allows herself even a glimmer of self-pity.
Originally from Glanmire, where her mum still lives, Shonagh was lured away from her beloved Cork to Galway by romance.
“I met a man and he happened to be awesome — and that’s the only thing that would drag me away from Cork,” she laughs.
“We married in 2014 and moved up here as his job was more stable. We had our boy Oscar a year after we moved.”
Unfortunately, the carefree times weren’t to last, as nine months later her father passed away and in March 2017 she had an early miscarriage, the same year of her cancer diagnosis.
“I had lumps and bumps before,” Shonagh explains. “When I was in school I had a cyst removed from my breast; a pea-type lump. So I’ve been breast aware for a long time. Fortunately I’m a really small size, so it’s not like there is a lot of work involved! It’s two seconds in the shower — and you know what’s normal.
“But I found a lump in my left breast at the beginning of September last year and knew it was different straight away. It seemed to come out of nowhere.
“I went to my GP within a few days — and my GP is fantastic — she said ‘I’m sending you straight in to the breast clinic’. I was seen within two weeks at the most and had my biopsy on September 20 — our wedding anniversary.”
Shonagh expected to be contacted again in a week’s time but it was only two days later she got a phone call at 10.30am, asking if she could come in at lunch time.
“They don’t make that phone call to tell you that you’ve won the lottery,” she says.
“Myself and my husband went in — and it was bleak. There was no-one in the waiting room and the silence was deafening. It was a very eerie feeling, like when you’re in an airport at the wrong time of day. Time went by slowly. But since then it’s been on fast-forward.”
Her diagnosis was multifocal invasive ductal carcinoma, grade three. A 4cm tumour had been detected and a mastectomy was advised.
Did she have any qualms about such drastic surgery?
“If you have a bad tooth you take it out; you don’t wait for it to infect everything else,” she replies matter-of-factly.
“They worked so quickly with me. I know some people don’t have good experiences of the HSE but in my experience it was amazing, the care I was given. There was support from the breast cancer nurse and the surgeon was so available and respectful of me.”
Through those dark times, being kept busy with medical appointments actually helped her, as did her down-to-earth attitude and a wonderful sense of humour.
“You do what you gotta do. I didn’t ever buy into ‘it’s a battle’. I’m going to find the bright side of every bit of it. I don’t want to wallow. I prefer to be proactive and matter of fact and I try to see the lighter side of it — and there always is.
“That’s what I’ve learned. Everybody is different though. There are as many reactions to cancer as there are types of cancer. But that’s my way of doing it.
“A friend of mine got me a cancer-pink t-shirt with a quote from Withnail And I on it: ‘Alright, this is the plan — we get in there and get wrecked’. I have a photo of me hooked up to chemo with that t-shirt on. That’s finding the sense of humour in it. Also, we said ‘cancer’ with an Australian accent from day one. Those really silly things get you through it.”
Six weeks after her mastectomy, Shonagh started chemotherapy, something which she found terrifying beforehand, exacerbated by other people’s horror stories and the inevitable Google searches.
“Then I said, I’m not going to do that anymore. I was freaking myself out completely. Being scared isn’t going to help you.”
When the day came to begin the treatment, Shonagh did not feel alone.
“My husband came for the first session and the nurses were amazing. They talk you through every second of what’s going on.”
Side effects can vary from patient to patient and for Shonagh it gives her another moment to feel lucky: “Thank God in Heaven I was really lucky, I wasn’t nauseous.”
She didn’t get off scot-free though.
“I had an injection 24 hours after chemo to stimulate the bone marrow. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. Three days afterwards I had pains in my bones like I had never felt before. It could take a half-hour to get up the stairs. You can’t sit, you can’t stand. It’s like having a flu multiplied by a billion. That was the thing that got me.
“Because of the drugs, you go through dark days every two weeks. By the time you’re due your next session your body is almost recovering — until you hit it again. And it’s all cumulative. At 3 o’clock in the morning you’re sitting at the kitchen table because you can’t lie with the pain. And you can’t ring anyone at 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s the darkest part of the night and it’s the loneliest time. But the next morning you put on your brave face because you have a two-and-a-half-year-old who needs you to pull your socks up.”
Shonagh was more worried about Oscar than she was about herself and tried not to upset his routine too much, so she managed his care herself with the help of family.
“His world was turned upside down enough. I didn’t want to send him out to something different. It would have melted my brain — and his. My in-laws live a mile away and they’ve been fantastic. I could not have got through the last year without them. They were here at the drop of a hat — and the hat dropped a few times.”
Her Cork friends and family also arrived every two weeks when she was unable to do much; taking out Oscar and filling the freezer with food.
“My sisters, nieces and nephews… they’ve been a life-raft through all of it. Yes, I’ve been the one kicking my legs and going in a particular direction but I couldn’t have done it without them.”
And of course there was her husband Vinnie.
“To say he was my rock through all of this and even before- hand is a massive understatement. He worked from home as much as possible and took care of me and Oscar. He has held me up throughout so that I could concentrate on getting well. He is my cornerstone.”
Six weeks after her chemotherapy ended, Shonagh began radiotherapy, something she describes as “a breeze in comparison”; finishing the treatment last June. She will now be taking the drug Tamoxifen for up to ten years.
Her journey would be gruelling enough to knock anyone for six, but instead of scaling back her life she is taking on new challenges. In September — 51 weeks after her diagnosis — she completed theWomen’s Mini-Marathon, despite never having been a fan of running before.
“There are not many things that I’ll say I’m exceptionally proud of but I am of that. I crossed the line with two other girls who were doing it for the same charity (Cork Rebel Wheelers) and I cried out of a sense of achievement. I thought, look how far I’ve come. I’ve done this, I can do anything. In the house, my mini-marathon medal is front and centre with pictures of my husband and Oscar. I dragged myself across the finish line and I’m so proud of that. This medal is getting framed; it means so much. Fear always got in the way before — what if I can’t run a full 5k? I’m not afraid of those kinds of things anymore. That’s what cancer has given me.”
Also back in June, when she was recovering from treatment, she started sowing the seeds for her new business: Shonagh O’Malley, Parenting Advisor. With 20 years’ experience in childcare, including crèches, pre-schools and home minding she feels she has a wealth of knowledge to pass on to often stressed and unsure parents. While only officially launched in recent weeks, she is already receiving glowing praise from parents on her Facebook page.
She is giving workshops in both Cork and Galway, while she also aims to be available for group courses, Skype calls, e-mails and home visits; whatever the client needs.
“I have training and methods in my arsenal and that’s what I want to give parents — tips and techniques that they can bring home with them. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a counsellor, but I’ll give suggestions and I’ll be helping on a real down-and-dirty, nitty gritty, day-to-day basis and will be that support for parents,” she says.
It’s clear that Shonagh has a huge heart when it comes to thinking of others, not only the parents she meets in the course of her new business venture. She mentions Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who passed away this year, in the wake of the cervical smear scandal; as well as a woman in the midlands named Mairead McDermott, whose cancer journey she has been following. Mairead, in her early 30s and mother to a toddler, was diagnosed with stage three triple-negative breast cancer and offered only palliative chemotherapy.
“I’d be really angry with myself if I wallowed. I lost a boob, I lost my hair for a while but I have my boy and I have my husband and that’s all that matters.
“How very dare I feel sorry for myself when Emma Mhic Mhathúna would love to be here now.
“There’s an obligation on all of us to live the happiest we can in honour of the people who haven’t had the chance. That girl, Mairead would give anything to be where I am now. Was I lucky and she wasn’t? Is it that simple? I’m just going to do the very best I can from here on in and remember those others who aren’t so lucky.”
Although she describes herself as always having been a ‘glass half full’ person, Shonagh’s cancer journey has certainly given her a startlingly positive perspective.
“Would you believe I’ve told family and friends that cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me? I didn’t want to be a cliché, saying cancer has changed my life; I don’t see myself as inspirational or a warrior. Putting one foot in front of the other is how you get by.
“But people dropped their busy lives and came running to look after me and that’s why cancer is amazing: to feel that loved by other people. I’m so lucky to know just how much I matter to other people.”