04 Oct 2022

The Guest Column: Coping with Cancer

The Guest Column: Coping with Cancer

I used to mutter to myself: 'Don’t mention that word cancer.' Cancer has taken the lives of so many of the people I know. Threatened the lives of others. And is there any cure? Cancer research and the latest new treatments offer more and more hope.

And there are times when so little can be done. I often hear people say: 'Positive thinking leading to positive actions can help….' - 'Oh yeah?' Then so many of those positive thinkers I know/knew are gone too.

But hold on a minute, surely that’s a counsel of despair. Surely it does make sense to think and act positive. Certainly makes more sense than to think and act negative, especially if you are already dealing with a challenging health situation. I have been doing my best to keep thinking and acting positive over the past eight years.

On March 13th 2014, Mr Mulholland summoned me to Altnagelvin Hospital to give me the results of my recent CT scan. Straight talking, says he: “You have a six centimetre cancer in your right kidney and we need to remove that kidney. Soon, very soon.“

I expressed my shock in expletives. He was re assuring. “Many people with one kidney survive well.”

Mr Mulholland was in his scrubs. He had another surgery to perform. He had to go. The oncology nurse specialist, Kerry Chambers, was gentle and kind. She asked did I want to make a phone call to a family member or friend. I had come alone, not expecting this outcome.

Mr Mulholland removed the offending kidney on the 31st March 2014.That was a Monday. By the Wednesday, the morphine had worn off and I had 'the post -operation blues,' a phrase I learnt from the ever helpful Kerry.

I felt awfully weak and desperate to know from Mr Mulholland on his ward round whether the operation was a success. By success I meant had he managed to 'get' all the cancer? Was I now cancer free?. Of course, all Mr Mulholland could say is “We need to wait now and we will scan you again in September and we will see from there.”

This was not what I wanted to hear. My stress levels were rising again. Kerry Chambers came to my aid once more. She recommended me for counselling to Cancer Focus and I had the privilege of significant counselling support from its staff member, Michael Gibson.

September 2014 came and went. All appeared well enough. But in February 2015 after another scan, I was told there were nodules in my right lung, small nodules, but nevertheless nodules. Told this in the Cancer Centre at the City Hospital. During a kind of multi disciplinary meeting there, chemotherapy was mooted as a possible helpful intervention. I have mixed feelings /thoughts about 'chemo'… Some say ' chemo' lays waste to your immune system.

A kind of scorched earth healer. Others recommend 'chemo' as a go-to healing intervention. What would I do if offered 'chemo'? I wasn’t sure. Still am not sure.

Immediately after that meeting in the Belfast Cancer Centre I sought out a consultation with medical herbalist David Foley who was based in Letterkenny. (David is now retired. His colleague over the past few years, Megan Crowch, has now taken over his practice. 0035374 9125738)

The woman on the end of the phone was warm but let me know that David was a very busy man and would not be available for several months. “Maybe,” she said, “There will be a cancellation before then. Will I put you on the list?” “Please do, “ I said, and with not a little pleading added,“ chemotherapy is being mentioned …”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she told me and about two weeks later I got a call asking if I was available that afternoon to come to see David in Letterkenny. I was there before I put the phone down.

David was welcoming, cordial, avuncular, positive: He immediately recommended a number of actions:

A vegan diet and encouraged me to buy retired Dublin doctor John Kelly’s book 'Stop feeding your cancer- One doctor’s journey.' I was already mainly vegetarian so it wasn’t the most onerous of changes to take on a vegan diet and I continued to eat 'oily fish'… (My daughter told me I wasn’t vegan, I was pescetarian). David offered the opinion that eating meats.

especially red meat and dairy products. could contribute to feeding my cancer. And I have been someone who has loved cheese and Greek yoghurt. But clearly needs must. I figured a vegan diet was a better option than cancer growing and the vicissitudes arising from chemotherapy.

David also recommended that I start to take two herbal medications: Cordyceps (to aid my lungs) and Salvestrol (to support my immune system) both of which were on sale in his beautifully stocked shop, Natural Way, at the Tesco Centre in Letterkenny. I have been taking these herbal medications since February 2015 and so far any further talk from the medical professionals about chemotherapy has been very muted.

Though I should add that I have no scientific proof that these mediations and my mostly vegan diet have slowed the growth of these nodules and enabled me so far to sidestep chemotherapy. People have said to me: “Maybe you would have done just as well if you had never bothered with the medications or the dietary change.” Maybe… People have also said that it was well for me that I could afford the cost of these medications. They are right but what price do you put on your health? Am I worth it? Yes I am worth it.

Around this time, a friend, Hilary, told me about Scottish psychologist, David Hamilton...- “His healing visualisations are available on the internet, free, no money to be shelled out. Well, you need to pay to access the internet unless maybe you can use the library?”

I had never heard of this man but I searched him out and have been listening on line to his visualisations over the past seven years. And as the years motor on, I have been listening with more attention, more focus. I love his 17 minute 'Cleansing Meditation' where he encourages the listener to envisage a healing light bathing every part of the body especially that part where the disease lies. Regularly first thing in the morning, last thing at night, I listen to David. There’s a familiar warm earthiness to his voice.

Somehow, while searching out David Hamilton I came across Robert Puff. His less than ten minutes cancer healing meditation I love. He encourages me to remember when I was at my most healthy and as much as possible to recapture that energy in every cell in my body. He ,too, invites the listener to imagine a healing light bringing ease to that part of the body visited by cancer. That ten minutes is a brilliant rewarding investment of my time. And Robert Puff’s cancer healing meditation is also freely available on the internet.

And, of course, there’s Louise L Hay. I often saw her best-selling book 'You Can Heal Your Own Life' around in the community, in women’s groups, self -help groups. I, myself have had at least two copies over the years. I gave those books away to people who maybe at the time needed them more than me. Now almost every morning I listen to her 'morning meditation' and almost every night I listen to her 'evening meditation.'

These meditations, too, are freely available on the internet and certainly encourage positive thinking and healing. As does her empowering affirmation meditation 'I can do it.' Also freely available on the internet.

Throughout the past seven years I have been constantly monitored by members of the City Hospital Cancer Centre oncology team led by Alison Clayton.

My CT scans were conducted every three or four months at Altnagelvin in the North West Cancer Centre where Aoibhin Monaghan and her staff are both very kind and very professional.

Those scans continued during Covid and one afternoon, humorously, Aoibhin described me as one of her 'regulars.' 'It's not a bar you’re running here,' I replied! Not too gruffly I hope. That warmth from Aoibhin and her staff have helped humanise the CT scan process where I often felt vulnerable.

For my 70th birthday my friends Rose and Monica bought me a fit bit. Now I can tell how much I am walking each day, each week without becoming obsessive about that daily target of 10,000 steps. Walking has certainly been good for mind and body and can be a very sociable activity too. I am now getting back to yoga too up in the Old Library Trust (OLT) on Central Drive, Creggan.

And there are times when my positivity goes on vacation, when I can’t be bothered listening to the meditations or walking, when the very phrase 'positive thinking' grates on my nerves. Though I have always managed to take my medications and persevere with my mostly vegan diet.

And throughout these days, weeks, years there has been the loving kind support of my partner, Anne Tracey. Always there to remind me: “You’re doing all you can.” To raise a smile. To walk with me the streets of Creggan or up on the Walls. And there’s also the kind warm solidarity of family and friends. And there’s prayer. Many’s a day Anne and I will find ourselves in either St Mary’s Church or St Columba's Church in the Long Tower, quietly lighting a candle and sending out the light of prayer to those around us who for whatever reasons might be struggling too. Those 'good talking ' candles bring comfort.

And when the news from the latest scan wasn’t as good as I would wish, there’s the need to gently redouble my efforts and to invite all that kind loving care in some more.

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