Cancer was something I thought happened to other people...

Midwife and nurse Cathy O’Sullivan has launched a book of poetry, for Cork ARC, written while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, writes CHRIS DUNNE
Cancer was something I thought happened to other people...

Cathy O’Sullivan with her new book of poetry, called ‘Through Your Doors Again’

IN January, 2021, midwife/nurse Cathy O’Sullivan found a lump in her right breast. Less than one month later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

One of the ways Cathy coped with this diagnosis was through writing poetry, often when sitting waiting for appointments or at moments during the day when inspiration came.

It was a way to document her journey in date order, like diary entries through the various stages of her treatment, both the good and the challenging.

Through Your Doors Again is a cancer journey through poetry and verse, with all proceeds going to Cork ARC House.

“This cancer journey is unique to me,” says Cathy, “as I am aware that everyone’s cancer journey is so different. My message to all reading this book is the importance of breast self-check. And maybe these words might provide some comfort or understanding for someone out there who is going or has gone through cancer.”

Cathy recalls the day she found the lump on her breast.

“I found a lump on my breast on Saturday, January 30, 2021. I went upstairs, lay on the bed, and did a thorough examination. I stood in front of the mirror and did another examination.

“The following day was Sunday and I kept checking periodically and no matter how much I hoped that I had imagined it, there was definitely a lump there. Ironically, I had just finished reading Keelin Shanley’s beautiful book, A Light That Never Goes Out, on the day I found the lump.

“The following day, (Monday), I rang my GP at 9am. Despite the busyness of Covid, she gave me an appointment for 5pm that evening. She confirmed that there was a lump and referred me urgently to Cork University Hospital. I was seen in CUH the following week and had an examination by a consultant, a mammogram, an ultrasound and biopsies.”

Cathy O'Sullivan with consultant Seamus O’Reilly.
Cathy O'Sullivan with consultant Seamus O’Reilly.

Cathy got writing.

“I wrote my first poem at that visit, as we all wore masks and were socially distanced in the waiting area, and there was no interaction with other women. Writing the poem was a form of distraction and passed the time for me,” says Cathy.

“I got the results on February 22 and when I got the diagnosis, it was a combination of shock and disbelief. Hearing words like Oncologist, chemotherapy and surgery was surreal.

“As I left CUH that day, I had a very definite plan of treatment and for the next few weeks it was a whirlwind of appointments for scans, tests, planning chemotherapy, etc.”

How did her family react to the devastating news?

“Sharing my diagnosis with family was very difficult as I knew it would really worry them,” says Cathy. “It’s not the type of news anyone wants to hear.”

What was life like before her diagnosis?

“Prior to my diagnosis, life was busy both at home and at work. I worked as the Director of the Centre of Midwifery Education in Cork University Maternity Hospital where one day I was planning and organising education and working with a team, and the next day I was grappling with the fact that I was now on sick leave with a serious illness.

“For years, as a midwifery teacher, I was always teaching students and expectant new mothers the importance of breast check. I never expected to find a lump on my own breast. This was something I thought happened to other people!”

The treatment began for Cathy.

“Starting chemotherapy was scary,” she recalls.

“I went through five months of intensive chemotherapy and then had a break of six weeks before surgery. To get through the discomforts of chemotherapy on Tuesdays, I used to drive to Garryvoe after my blood tests on Mondays for a walk with my sister-in-law. The view of Ballycotton Island and the sound of the waves were so calming. I used to make videos of the sound of the waves and play them during chemotherapy. I found nature, especially the sea, very therapeutic.

“I also found writing poetry helped me through chemotherapy and the whole cancer journey. I worked with a poet, Enda Wyley, who mentored me while writing the book. Enda’s encouragement kept me going when I would struggle with tiredness, side effects and low energy, she did all this voluntarily as she believed in the book writing project and wanted to support the work of Cork ARC. Her generosity was remarkable.

“I found both writing and reading poetry very therapeutic and when I was writing I was totally distracted from worries.”

Surgery was looming.

“On the day of my surgery, I took Enda Wyley’s book of poetry, The Painter On His Bike, and Helen Dunmore’s book Inside the Wave to read while I was waiting to be called to theatre. They were great books and inspired the poem Surrender that I wrote that morning. Six weeks after surgery I had radiotherapy.”

How long was Cathy’s cancer journey?

“My whole cancer journey was ten months and I am grateful to be through it,” she says.

How did she deal with it?

“My way of dealing with cancer was one foot in front of the other and one moment at a time during the treatment. Family, kindness of neighbours, friends and work colleagues, poetry writing and Zoom meetings with Enda all sustained me.”

Cork ARC sustained Cathy too.

“Cork ARC were wonderful support and from the day I made the initial phone call to contact them until today, they have been brilliant,” says Cathy.

“Diagnosis and treatment are difficult, but the limbo when it is all over is challenging also. There are great after-supports in Cork ARC, including group sessions on how to adapt to life after cancer. I attended pilates there and I am now doing kayaking in Kinsale with a group of women who have been through breast cancer treatment. Kayaking has really helped with improving my shoulder mobility, which was restricted after surgery. The exercise, combined with the scenery and peer group banter, are brilliant. It is called Ladies who Launch.

“I found the one-to-one support and art therapy very helpful.”

Cathy O'Sullivan with Enda Wyley, who mentored her while writing.
Cathy O'Sullivan with Enda Wyley, who mentored her while writing.

Cathy loves nature.

“I love sea swimming and walking on the beach and I do both as often as I can. It is a huge relief to be finished treatment. I am extremely grateful to the staff in CUH and the South Infirmary for their excellent care, kindness, and professionalism.

“One of the side effects of chemotherapy was altered taste and a metallic taste in my mouth. When my taste returned about seven weeks after finishing chemotherapy, it was such a treat.”

Cathy was inspired.

“I wrote the poem Woman In Cafe one day in October when I went into a cafe and got a latte and so enjoyed the taste of it. The poem came to me immediately when I savoured the taste of the coffee and I wrote it while I was drinking it.

“Adapting from being a nurse/midwife to patient was challenging,” says Cathy.

“I had been involved in a National HSE group developing resources for pregnant women, (My Pregancy Book, website and National Standards for Antenatal Education) before my diagnosis. I missed the buzz of that. Covid had stopped national face-to-face meetings but I was still involved in online support, especially in the development and roll-out of online antenatal education.”

What are Cathy’s future plans?

“My goal through publishing the book is to raise between €8,000-10,000 for Cork ARC. Since the launch, I have already raised more than €2,500 and it is growing daily. The book is €20 and is available on the Cork ARC website and online at Amazon and Book Depository.

“Thank you to Enda Wyley, my niece Maria Lynch, Rita Dineen, (cover illustration), and Orla Kelly for helping me get the book to publication stage.

Cathy’s cancer has reminded her of what is really important in life - staying grounded, enjoying the moment, and huge gratitude for family, health and wellbeing.

She still gets tired and has to pace herself when enjoying her hobbies, of reading and walking.

She adds: My faith really helped me get through the last year.”

Cathy doesn’t hang about.

“I have just finished a short story writing course with the Irish Writers’ Centre. I will enter the short story that I wrote into a few competitions and I will submit to journals for publication. I will continue poetry writing also. I will take time to relax and enjoy life.

Woman in Cafe, by Cathy O’Sullivan

Latte arrives.

Dream stuff.

In her mind she is in Italy now.

First sip, liquid gold.

Cancer doesn’t belong in this world in this moment Yet, it resides in her body.

It has no discretion, no class distinction It arrives uninvited - Takes up residence and pays no rent.

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