I’m so delighted to start a brand new feature today on Happy Magazine called Your Stories. As the name suggests, it’s all about you and your cancer story.
My aim with these is to shine a light on all of those of us who are facing/have faced cancer and share our greatest learnings – to inspire and motivate us all, for wherever we are in the journey.
Today, my very first reader’s story is by Gerard D’Arcy.
Your name, age and where you’re from
My name is Gerard D’Arcy. I am 51 years of age and I’m from Cashel in Co. Tipperary, but I’ve been living in Cork for the past 31 years!!
Your diagnosis story
I had a colonoscopy in August 2016 after visiting my GP to discuss some “unusual” symptoms. I was 49 at the time. My surgeon subsequently met my wife and myself on 6th September and informed me I had a colorectal adenocarcinoma. His recommendation was surgery as soon as possible, which I duly had on 15th September in the Mercy University Hospital, Cork.
How did you feel when you were first diagnosed?
Actually, and this sounds ludicrous, initially I felt somewhat “relieved”. In the sense that in the preceding months to my diagnosis, I knew something wasn’t or didn’t feel quite right… I had symptoms that weren’t “normal” and the diagnosis was a kind of “proof” that I wasn’t going mad!! I was right, I knew there was something wrong!! However, in the cold light of day and when I had time to think about it… I felt the shock; the anger; the worry; the despair. Having trained as a General Nurse many years ago and working in the pharmaceutical industry for nearly 25 years, I knew all the statistics, the good, the bad, the ugly, the survival rates etc etc… But I hadn’t much time to think about it as a date for my surgery came through – 9 days after my diagnosis.
Your treatment plan
So, after the scans and colonoscopies, the plan was for radical abdominal surgery – anterior resection, total mesorectal excision and formation of a temporary ileostomy. I met my Stoma Nurse, Mary, who I had worked with many years before as a student nurse (how small is the world?!). She marked where the stoma would be placed, a brief insight in to what to expect after surgery and management in the months after surgery – I knew I was going to have this for at least 6 months to give the bowel time to heal after the surgery.
How did treatment go for you?
Well, I can tell you that major abdominal surgery, even if it was completed laparoscopically by a highly-skilled surgeon, is extremely hard going! The surgery was lengthy, I remember being put to sleep at 1:20pm in the afternoon and the next I remember is being taken back to the high dependency ward at around 10pm that night! I don’t think there was any part of me left that wasn’t hooked up to a drip, tubes, drains, machine… But, with unbelievably attentive and supportive staff, I was discharged 5 days after my surgery; feeling very sore and sorry for myself. But as my wife is also a nurse, I was SO lucky to be going home to where I knew I would be taken care of so well. I knew this was a long road ahead… I also had to have 6 months of chemotherapy as the cancer had spread locally to many lymph nodes. My Oncologist and his team looked after me so well during those 6 months – they have such an important role to play in talking to patients, explaining treatment, what to expect and what to do if you experience side effects… and you DO get side effects! Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the date for my ileostomy reversal surgery was scheduled for May 2017 and I couldn’t wait! But wow, did I need all of those 7 months remaining in 2017 to come to terms with the “new functionality” of post colorectal surgery…! Much is written in magazines, support literature and leaflets about what to expect after reversal of a stoma… it is all true.
Worst/best part of treatment
Best: The selection of a Surgeon whom I had 100% faith and trust in to get rid of all that cancer. His skill, his team and the support of a knowledgeable and professional team in the Mercy Hospital. The care and support of a dedicated Oncology team in MUH who are consummate professionals.
Worst: The day I was told that the cancer had spread locally to numerous lymph nodes, even though it looked like the primary tumour was in it’s early stages. I knew this meant chemotherapy and I’d have the stoma for longer than the 6 months. The ileostomy was probably the toughest thing to deal with and manage during the treatment.
What got you through treatment?
The unfailing support of my family (wife, daughter, son), my mother and siblings; a positive mental attitude/outlook from the beginning; and a strong religious faith that I knew I’d beat this no matter what. I was only 49 and as my Surgeon & Oncologist told me, I had a lot of living to do yet. And also the support of all the staff in ARC House Cancer Support in Cork – they listened, comforted, supported and offered many elements to my family and myself since diagnosis and to this day even. They are volunteers, funded from the public and offer a critical support to cancer patients and their families in a time of crisis.
Single best advice that helped you
Have a strong, positive mental attitude and you will beat this. I had access to so many medical journals, clinical papers and articles about colorectal cancer that I nearly drove myself mad reading all this stuff… but my Oncologist gave me a sage piece of advice: “Ger, just be a patient”!!
Where are you now/how are you now?
I am now back at work since the beginning of this year, albeit in a different role to that which I left before going off work. I was ready mentally and physically to return to work this year, after being out for nearly 18 months. However, I am delighted to be back, am positive about the future, even though there are always days when a fleeting negative thought occurs, e.g. will it recur, what if it comes back, how will I cope with cancer returning, how can I go through chemotherapy again, etc etc… I am doing the best I can to adhere to good diet, exercise regularly, reduce stress, moderate the “not so good” things in life… but yet at the same time, remembering life is for living!
How do you feel about your cancer experience now?
Well, I sometimes feel “what did I do to deserve this?” or “what could I have done differently in my life to avoid getting cancer?” But you know what, I don’t think there is much I could have done – as someone said to me once, it might very well have been “bad luck”! We can all talk about poor diet, over indulgence in alcohol, lack of exercise, too stressful work, etc etc, and even though many of these risk factors can lead to cancer, sometimes you can get cancer with the healthiest of living. So, you know I got cancer, I’ve had brilliant professionals to eliminate it and take care of me and now it’s up to me to do what I can to minimise the chances of it returning. The fact that there are many years of surveillance ahead (blood tests every 6 months, scans and scopes yearly etc) to ensure that anything untoward is picked up quickly. I sometimes look around and think… How many people walking down the street have gone through/are going through the very same process as I’ve just experienced? And how many wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers are experiencing the tough road of cancer treatment too? I guess the unfortunate answer is… Too many.
Has cancer changed you, if yes, how?
Yes. It has brought home to me, my family and friends how short life could be. How in an instance, life could be very different. It has also given me the kick I needed to modify my lifestyle and focus on what is important – my family. It’s a cliché, but boy is it true. It’s such a pity that in most cases, it takes some life altering or changing event to make people cop on to what’s important! Not money, not material things, not high flying jobs… The close family/people around you are what’s important. We are only “passing through” and if privileged enough, for maybe 80-90 years: it would be nice to leave behind a legacy that is positive and that people will remember you for being honest, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, sincere and loving! Not that you spent your life in meetings!
Have you changed anything in your life as a result of cancer, if yes, what and how?
Yes. Reduce stress levels; improve my diet and eat more healthily; exercise more regularly; enjoy the beauty that is all around us; take time to read more; go to music concerts or the theatre; enjoy life more with my family, e.g. take short breaks together, go out for walks with the dogs, be at home more, do the food shopping together! Make sure I spend more time with the people that matter in my life and not waste any time with those that suck the life out of you and just give off negative energy.
What helps you now if you have a difficult day?
Say it out overtly if something is bothering me – don’t keep it to myself as I would have done previously. Talk about it (which I wasn’t good at before). And listen to good old classic rock and heavy metal music! I love loud music… And when I feel I’m having a difficult day, I just say “remember Ger, you’ve been through a tough time, this is not the end of the world and re-assess and re-group and move on”. Tomorrow will be a better day. And during my cancer journey, I learned the value of mindfulness the breath – so, wake up, sit at the side of the bed, take 3 deep breaths and say to yourself, “Today is a great day and I look forward to what is ahead for me”!!
Single best purchase that helped you through cancer
You know what, the single most important “purchase” I made was to “Buy Time”. I mean take time to sleep, walk, talk, listen to music, travel, relax, read, watch TV, meet friends… I think we all need to stop rushing around and catching ourselves up as we will run ourselves in to the ground… for what?
If you could give one piece of advice to someone recently diagnosed, what would it be?
Trust your healthcare professionals, they have your best interest as their objective. And do your best to have a positive mental attitude to the cancer… it is as important as the surgery or the chemotherapy!
Thank you so much to Ger for being our first ever Reader’s Story.
I was really moved by so much of what he said – how about you?
If you would like to complete the questions for our next Your Stories feature, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org