Challenging times: Getting your life back on track after cancer

Thanks to better diagnostics, improved surgery techniques, and targeted drug therapy, more and more people are surviving cancer. But what happens when the treatment ends, asks Sharon Ní Chonchúir.

EVERY three minutes, a person is diagnosed with cancer in Ireland.

By 2020, one in every two will develop cancer during their lifetime.

While cancer may still be our second-biggest killer, survival rates are constantly improving. As a result, there are more than 165,000 people in Ireland today who are living with or have recovered from the

disease.

“So many advances have been made,” says Dr Derek Power, a consultant medical oncologist at Cork University Hospital and Mercy University Hospital.

“Diagnostics are better. Drug treatment is more targeted. Surgery has improved. Such is the progress being made that a significant percentage of people who have localised or even advanced cancer today can expect to live for years longer or be cured entirely.”

The Irish Cancer Society is holding its annual conference for cancer survivors and their families in Galway on September 15 and in Cork on September 22. It’s all about readjusting to life post-cancer.

Diarmuid Duggan, a senior dietitian at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork, will be speaking about why eating well matters for cancer patients and survivors.

“There is so much confusion out there about how nutrition can be used to cure cancer,” he says.

“It has to be balanced with evidence so that people are given the best chance of making an informed decision. I will be discussing the latest guidelines issued by the World Cancer Research Fund and urging people to do what they can to take small steps towards a healthier lifestyle.”

He recognises that many cancer patients struggle post-treatment. “They are told to come back for a check-up in six months’ time and the transition back to normality can be difficult,” he says. “Their anxiety about their health and the cancer coming back can be detrimental to their recovery. They still need support and that’s what we’re aiming to provide at this conference.”

Tanya Dobbyn, 26, from Waterford knows how true this is. Early last year, she was watching television at home when her hand brushed against her chest and she felt a small lump. Three months later, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer.

In one way, she wasn’t surprised. “My mum and aunt both had breast cancer and in the months I was waiting for my tests, the lump had changed from squishy to hard,” says Tanya.

“It was also bigger and the skin around it was red and sore to the touch.”

But the eventual diagnosis still came as a shock. “I was hysterical when they told me,” she says. “Even when I went back to discuss my treatment plan a week or two later, I still felt it wasn’t happening to me.”

Tanya’s treatment consisted of a year of chemotherapy followed by five weeks of radiation. During that time, because of the history of breast cancer in her family, she and her mother were also tested for the BRCA1 gene, which makes carriers much more likely to develop breast cancer.

“We were asked to draw up our family tree and when we did that, I realised how many of our relatives had had breast cancer,” she says. “I wasn’t surprised when our results came back positive.”

Last November, Tanya had a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer again. “It was a big decision but it was easy once I realised cancer was bound to happen to me again if I didn’t do something about it.”

Since finishing her treatment in May, Tanya has tried to return to normality. She has gone back to her part-time job in TK Maxx. “I’d had to stop working because there was too high a risk of infection for me there,” she says.

Her relationship with her boyfriend also suffered. “The stress got in the way of things in the past few months so we’re taking a break but I hope we’ll get back together again,” she says.

Free from hospital appointments, she is planning for the future again. “I’d like to do some volunteer work and will be looking into that in the next few weeks,” she says. “It’s also been a dream of mine to go to Machu Picchu in Peru and I know that the Irish Cancer Society organises a sponsored walk there. I might do that one day.”

Tanya has form when it comes to raising money for charity. In June, she took part in a sponsored skinny dip. “It seemed like a good way of marking the end of a tough chapter in my life.”

She has advice for people who are where she was just over a year ago. “Try not to think about your cancer all the time,” she says.

“Attend your appointments and remember that the doctors are there to help you. Treatment has changed so much. When I compare my treatment with my mother’s, there were so many advances. There are so many reasons to hope.”

A very stressful time

Gerard Ingoldsby, from Ballincollig in Cork, was diagnosed with cancer in January 2005. The 55-year-old now volunteers with the Irish Cancer Society’s Survivor Support programme and will be speaking at its conference.

“The discovery of a large stage-three polyp in my bowel marked the start of a very stressful time in my life,” says Gerard.

“I had a four-week course of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink the polyp before it was removed and afterwards, I had 26 weekly sessions of chemotherapy.”

A comment from his surgeon kept him going throughout his treatment. “He told me that treating my cancer wouldn’t be easy but that it could be done,” says Gerard. “I fixed on those words because they gave me hope.”

When his treatment ended in 2006, Gerard didn’t feel the expected sense of relief. “I should have felt ecstatic but instead, I came crashing down. I had no appointments, consultants or bloods to focus on and so I disappeared into a strange dark place.”

Everyone was worried about him, to the extent that his GP diagnosed depression. “To be honest, it felt more like post-traumatic stress to me,” says Gerard.

He found help at ARC Cancer Support, which provides support services to people as they recover from cancer.

“I got counselling, which allowed me to let everything that I had been feeling out.

“They also suggested tai chi and meditation, both of which helped me a lot. The six to eight months following the end of my cancer treatment were a bad time for me but ARC were the ones who led me out of it.”

Despite his full recovery, Gerard’s life was not the same as it had been pre-cancer. An electronic engineer, he found it difficult to return to work.

“I had terrible fatigue and concentration problems,” he says. “You don’t realise these can be the long-term side effects of cancer treatment.” He had to give up work entirely in 2008.

“My energy bank has never gone back to the level it once was,” he says. “I now have to manage it carefully, planning my week and conserving energy for the important things.”

Nevertheless, he is optimistic. “My life is different but it’s still a great life,” he says. “I’m thankful to be alive and for the opportunities that have come my way since and sometimes even because of my cancer.”

One of these opportunities is his involvement in the Irish Cancer Society Survivor Support Group. “I’m a 13-year survivor,” says Gerard.

“Talking to someone like me would have helped me when I was first diagnosed with cancer so I like to talk to people and let them know that they too have a fighting chance.”

As Dr Power says: “Cancer outcomes are unequivocally better than they were 10 years ago and there are more survivors than ever before. There is every reason for people diagnosed with cancer today to be hopeful for the future.”

National Conference for cancer survivors

The Irish Cancer Society is holding its annual national conference for cancer survivors. Entitled ‘Living Well with Cancer’, it’s taking place in the Clayton Hotel in Galway on Saturday, September 15, and in the Clayton Hotel, Cork, on September 22.

The conference is for cancer survivors, those who care for them, healthcare professionals, and staff or volunteers from community-based cancer support services.

A range of speakers will share their experiences, stories and expert knowledge. Dr Derek Power, for example, will discuss the progress that has been made in the drug treatment of cancer and how treatments have evolved from chemotherapy to targeted therapy and immunotherapy. He will also address how best to manage the side effects of treatment.

Senior dietitian Diarmuid Duggan will speak about why eating well matters for cancer patients and survivors. There will also be practical information sessions covering how to deal with fatigue, sexuality and intimacy after a diagnosis, how to manage returning to work, and much more.

Throughout the day, there will be a particular emphasis on the emotional and psychological effects of cancer, with the aim of supporting people as they live through the disease.

n  Attendance at the conference is free of charge but advance registration is essential. For further information email support@irishcancer.ie or calling 01-2310533. You can also register online at www.cancer.ie/support.

The Irish Cancer Society is holding its annual national conference for cancer survivors. Entitled ‘Living Well with Cancer’, it’s taking place in the Clayton Hotel in Galway on Saturday, September 15, and in the Clayton Hotel, Cork, on September 22.