Just When You Think It’s All Over
Most people are familiar with the basic routine of cancer treatment. It’s a tough regime, regardless of the format and severity of treatment, so the end of treatment is a momentous day and thanks to advances in cancer treatment it is often seen as the day a patient can press the re-start button and begin getting on with their lives again. However, this is often not nearly as easy as people think, so while family and friends and oncology teams see the patient in recovery and doing well, the patients themselves are often struggling to cope with the aftereffects of the regime and the build-up of toxins in their system.
Vera McKeon talks of her experience with breast cancer with this very point in mind. “I was diagnosed with Her2 positive breast cancer in 2018. As a nurse myself I was familiar with what would come and made up my mind very early on that I would take this head-on and work my way through it in as positive and confident a manner as possible. I employed every trick in the book to keep my positivity going, even dressing in the brightest colours with full make-up on to attend appointments and the treatments! Finally, the last day arrived, we celebrated quietly. It was over, my chances of it returning were very low and now I could get on with “normal” life.”
However for Vera and for most other patients the end of treatment is not the end of the challenges of cancer. Over the next few months Vera tried hard to return to her normal routines, taking daily walks and each day trying to do a little more than the day before. It wasn’t working. “The fatigue was so debilitating I could not manage even the small everyday tasks and over the course of 2019 and into 2020 this really started to affect my mental health and my life in general. I was so frustrated that just when I should be having a massive pick-up in my energy and activity and living life even more to the full than before, I was actually spending hours every day resting after short walks or light tasks. This was compounded by disturbed sleeping patterns which left me more fatigued and further eroded my ability to break this pattern.”
Having reached a point where she didn’t really know who to turn to, especially as this was during the COVID pandemic, Vera phoned the Irish Cancer Society who, together with the National Cancer Control Programme(NCCP) and Cancer Care West, had formed “Together For Cancer Concern” a network of support services which operates nationally offering online and telephone support for cancer patients throughout Ireland. Vera’s call was relayed to Cancer Care West who were offering Psycho-Oncology counselling to cancer patients and their families. Vera was duly contacted by Cancer Care West and started counselling with Dr. Cathy O’ Sullivan.
“It really was like the beginning of the beginning again” Vera remembers. “Through my sessions with Cathy I developed a much clearer perspective on what I had and was still going through. I began to understand that I was putting too much pressure on myself and setting my expectations too high. The road to recovery was not short, straight or easy. I don’t think I was really prepared for that in the same way I was prepared for the actual treatment.” Vera also started sessions with Emma Houlihan, a physiotherapist at Cancer Care West, who specialises in cancer rehabilitation physiotherapy. “Again it was like a lightbulb moment for me. Emma explained that I was trying to do too much too soon. This was causing me to constantly go beyond what my body could cope with and causing me to regress instead of progress. Through Emma’s guidance I developed a programme of exercise that worked for me and slowly but surely I built up my resilience and stamina until I was finally taking my much loved long walks followed by quality time with my family. The final element of my recovery programme was my Yoga sessions with Pauline, also at Cancer Care West, which helped to restore my spirit, another often overlooked aspect of cancer rehabilitation.”
Vera is now in a much better place in her life. Her energy has returned and her daily routine is pretty much back to normal. She is anxious though that others in her situation may learn from her experience. “My advice to anyone in my situation is as follows: The effects of cancer do not end with treatment; getting the right support is key to learning how to move forward; wonderful support like I got at Cancer Care West is available and is free but you must find it and avail of it; do what they tell you to do because it works; don’t be too hard on yourself as you cannot improve in leaps and bounds but with baby steps and small wins.” And a final word “Thank you Cancer Care West for supporting me on the final stages of my cancer journey. I could not have done it alone.”