Vickie Maye’s experience of cancer

I SAT alone in the darkened room, the TV images illuminating the x-ray I grasped in my hands.

Nothing could break the hold this shadowy image held over me. I was transfixed with the snapshot of the sinister growth spreading across my chest.

I forced myself to refocus my stare through the grey film to watch the south tower of the World Trade Center falling. It was September 11, 2001. America was under attack.

And so was I. (Examiner) >>>

It was another two weeks of failed biopsies, surgery and endless sleepless nights before I was finally given a diagnosis. I had cancer. I was 25 years old.

The diagnosis came as a complete shock. Because the tumour was deep inside my chest, there were none of the usual lumps or bumps.

I was more tired than usual, but I was busy, working as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, where I had lived for two years.

The half stone or so of weight loss was easily explained too — I went to the gym, had a healthy diet. Sure, I enjoyed a few drinks on a night out, but I never smoked. I was your average 25-year-old. There was no history of cancer in my family. The disease simply wasn’t on my radar until I decided to apply for residency to give me the option of living long term in Australia. An x-ray was required to rule out TB. And so I heard the words no one ever wants to hear: you have cancer.

The events unfolding in New York became little more than a distraction. Cancer, chemotherapy, radiation. Words that carry the most negative of connotations. And they were all happening to me.

Most people who have experienced cancer will tell you it’s the night time that gets you, lying awake with your fears, your worst case scenarios. Would the chemo work? Would I lose my hair? Would I ever get to hold my own child? And at the end of it all, would the cancer just come back and kill me in the end anyway?

The odds were, thankfully, in my favour. I had Hodgkins Disease, a cancer that invades the lymphatic system. It is one of the rarest but also one of the most curable cancers with an 80pc survival rate. That statistic carried me through the long months ahead.

I stayed in Australia for my treatment. I had made the country home, had a job I loved. It’s hard to explain but I was determined to keep my life going as best I could, rather than return to Ireland to become a cancer patient. My mother came to Sydney to support me and ended up staying seven months. It was an incredible sacrifice for her to be separated from my father and the rest of my family. She was my light during those dark days.

So, the chemo. Unfortunately, my experience was pretty much the stereotype.

The treatment was tough because I walked into the chemo room a healthy 25-year-old. It took three hours to pump the four chemo drugs into my body and at the end of it I could hardly walk out of the room I was so sick.

Then there was the nausea and the constipation that no drug could ease.

A few weeks after my first chemo, the hot flushes started. My ovaries had shut down. My oncologist tried to reassure me, it might be temporary he insisted, but there were no guarantees. I would sit on the Sydney underground, staring at pregnant women, watching mothers dote over their daughters. None of this, I told myself, would ever be mine.

I was told there was a 50/50 chance I would lose my hair and I clung to the 50% chance that I would keep it. It was a major concern for me. For the first two months things were looking good. Then it began to get thin. In the end, while I never went completely bald, I had to wear a wig.

I know some people do not mind the baldness but I was devastated. To me it was a physical sign that I was ill, a label to the outside world that I had cancer. I would look in the mirror and the person looking back at me was a stranger. She was a very sick stranger. The fact was, while I knew the treatment would come to an end and the sickness would be over, I knew it would be years until I had my long hair back.

Still, life had to go on. I kept working, taking three or four days off for chemo. It was difficult to pretend to be part of the real world, to watch people living normal lives when my whole world was turned upside down. I would sit in the office and stare at colleagues, wondering if I was like them once before too, without a real care in the world.

I had my good, positive days and my low, tear-filled days, what I consider a normal reaction to a cancer diagnosis and the reality of months of chemotherapy.

Many people were morbid, treating me as if I was about to die. Then there was the other extreme, those who kept telling me to be positive, that I was lucky. In my mind I was lucky in the cancer world in that I could be cured, but unlucky in the real world because I got cancer in the first place.

The day I was told I was in remission was one of mixed feelings. I was elated, yet after months of counting down the days to the end of treatment, I was left weak, broken, terrified of recurrence. I returned home to Ireland and slowly began to rebuild my life, all the time wondering if I would ever get to hold a baby of my own in my arms.

In 2005 Mia was my first little miracle. And three months ago I was blessed again with a second daughter, Lana.

Tomorrow will be a day of mixed emotions for me. As TV reports and newspapers mark the anniversary of 9/11, I know my mind will return to that dark Sydney bedroom. But there is too much to savour to linger there too long.

As of September 11, 2011, I am no longer just in remission. After 10 years my doctors tell me I am finally cured of the disease. I will celebrate it with the children I thought I would never have.

Vickie Maye is Features Editor of the Irish Examiner.

*September 15 is World Lymphoma Awareness Day. The All Ireland Lymphoma Patient Conference takes place on October 1 in the Alexander Hotel in Dublin. Details from; Irish Cancer Society Freephone: 1800 200 700.


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