A little over a year ago, I got the life-changing news that I had cancer. Since then, our lives have been turned upside down. I say our, because through-out this entire journey, my wife has been by my side every step of the way; and it has been every bit as hard on her as it has been on me. I will never be able to thank her enough for all she has done for me.
This last year has been the toughest year of my life, for more reasons than the fact I have been fighting cancer. I won’t lie, there have been times when I just wanted to, and there continues to be times when I just want to, curl-up and die; to give-up on it all.
I have not been dealing very well with life. My health continues to be poor, both physically and mentally, my career is in pieces, and my entire life seems like it is on pause, and I don’t feel like I have any control over it.
Despite all this, I am trying to stay strong; for my wife, my family, my friends, and myself. A friend told me recently, that what they’ve always admired about me is my “authenticity”. It was never a quality I tried to nurture, and I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?
Anyway, their words started me thinking. How can I reconnect with the “authentic me”? I’ve really struggled with this, because I feel like the last 15-months, or so, have stolen a ginormous piece of me. They have rendered me feeling useless, weak, and dependent. I’ve been living in a mentally and physically exhausting prison of my own discontent.
Things I used to be able do in a few hours can take me days and even weeks. I’m in constant pain. I’m always cranky, fatigued, and frustrated. I’m frustrated because I forget things, loads of things, there are days I feel like I am demented.
Every waking second is spent in a haze of depression, and the littlest things make me anxious in a big way. And all of this scares the life out of me. I’m not the person I was on the 24th of February 2019, the last day I felt “healthy”; the last day I felt like “me”.
One thing I have been able to have some control over are my words. And although I cannot muster them in quite as fervent a way as I once could, I can still try.
As a journalist, words occupy a special place in my life. I love language and always have. When I was a child I would write short stories, just for fun. And as a teenager, I wrote plays and poems.
Recently, I decided to rekindle that love. Not in a professional capacity, as I had been doing before I got sick; but as a ‘born-again’ hobby. I decided to start writing ‘the book’. You know the one, the one we all have ‘in us’.
I’m not deluded enough to think anyone would ever want to read ‘the book’, but part of me feels as though I need to write it. I need to write it to come to terms with what I have experienced, who I have become, and ultimately to discover where I might be going. It’s the one therapy I feel might actually help me recover.
I have accepted that I am never going to be the person I was before getting cancer. I don’t know if this will be for the better or the worse, but it is the reality. I have to forge a new path in life, and this is a very intimidating prospect for me, right now, but I have to do it.
A few paragraphs
Below are the first few paragraphs I have been able to put together over the last few weeks. It’s not the finest bit of reflective writing that has ever been produced, nor does it have the best grammar, syntax, or spelling. But it is authentic, and most importantly, it’s a start.
In these few paragraphs, I detail the days that surrounded my cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t easy to relive it all, but it is something I have to do. I have to feel the pain, the fear, and do it anyway. It has helped me, at least a little bit, to come to terms with what has been a life-changing experience.
I just want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been there for me since I got sick. I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world to have such a dedicated wife, loving family, caring friends, and a supportive community. The thousands of messages of support; cards; calls; and texts, have all been of great comfort to me.
My thanks, too, go to the healthcare professionals who have cared for me since I became ill. Society has owed you a great debt, for some time now. Your continued hard-work and dedication during the current crisis has reminded many of your importance. I know I will never forget all you have done for me and I hope a grateful nation never does either.
And finally, thanks for reading. Click “read more” below to see the few paragraphs I have managed to horse-out.
Those few paragraphs
The first few lines of a great story are probably the most important. It is what draws-in the reader. That is why the first lines are so hard to get right. When I first decided to chronicle my life, I really struggled to find the words. The fact I was sitting in a semi-private room in Mullingar Regional Hospital, waiting for the doctors to tell me what I already knew, didn’t help.
I had just turned 27, a few weeks earlier, and my second wedding anniversary was coming-up. I was struggling to find the words for something other than the opening paragraph of my life’s story, that day, too. I knew that before too long, I was going to have to tell everyone I loved what was going-on. But every time I thought about saying those words, I just teared-up and couldn’t.
I really struggled to find the words I would say to my wife. I couldn’t bear the thought of how much pain I was going to inflict on her, with the news.
It was a Wednesday, I’d been admitted through the emergency department the morning before. I’ll never forget coming to the hospital; the pain in my groin was debilitating. I had woken-up at 2 am, crawled out of the bed, out into the sitting-room, and onto the couch. NowDoc told me to get straight to a hospital, so I rang my dad. I didn’t want to wake my wife because she had work in the morning.
Anyway, as I sat there, in a big comfy arm-chair, with my laptop on the adjustable hospital dinner table, I tried to figure out how to start my story. I managed to horse-out 4-pages of mediocre drivel. It was a start, I guess. The lap-top subsequently broke and I lost that bit of work, but I don’t think the world will be any worse-off, as a result of the loss.
Jimmy, someone who really proved himself as a great friend over the course of the following year, called to say hello. It was a great excuse to close the laptop and end my suffering, and save future generations of unwitting readers from suffering, also. I think he brought me sweets, I can’t really remember, he didn’t come empty handed.
Jimmy and I shot-the-breeze for an hour-or-so. Our dark sense of humour providing both of us with some much needed comic relief. We often joked that if anyone recorded and broadcast our conversations that we would either be on a list or committed to an institution of some sort.
Shortly after Jimmy left, the junior doctor came-by to ask some ‘not so subtle’ questions. The questions focused largely on “family history”. You see, for the couple of weeks before going to the hospital, I was hobbling around thinking I had a hernia. I was in such crippling pain at times that I couldn’t think clearly, I still went to work every day, because I was a stubborn arse, but I literally couldn’t stand-up straight. I wasn’t in the hospital long when I realised I didn’t have a hernia, and that things were a lot more serious.
When I arrived at the hospital at 3 am, I was brought straight through to triage. The first ER doctor, going on my suggestion that I thought I had a hernia, took a look at me and thought perhaps I was suffering from a “strangulated hernia”. He proceeded to give me some pain relief, let’s just say, not orally. Then he let down the head of my bed so I was a sort-of up-side-down. It was a bit odd, but I didn’t think anything of it, at the time.
Then the surgeon arrived, and with a rather bewildered look on his face began his inquiries by asking: “Why are you up-side down?” I don’t remember what I told him, but I’m sure I made light of the situation, and I definitely deflected blame to the ER doctor who put me in a somewhat compromising position. He quickly leveled me out and changed the diagnosis, we weren’t dealing with a hernia, it was a serious infection. Bloods and an ultrasound were ordered, and I lay on the triage bed, out of pain for the first time in a fortnight, for a few hours.
Morning came, I was ushered down the hallway to the ultrasound waiting area. I wasn’t waiting long, when a very pleasant lady-doctor called me in and started doing the scan. My gut told me something had caught her eye. I volunteered the fact that 10-years previously I’d had a hydrocele operation on the same side I was having bother, she just said: “That’s important for us to know.” She was, of course, a consummate professional. When the scan was over, I sauntered back up to the A and E.
I was so tired at this stage, and well medicated, that the next little while was a bit of blur. I probably slept, or tried to, at least. Then, the curtain was pulled back. The team was expansive, to say the least. There must have been 20 doctors of varying degrees of qualification doing rounds. The consultant took charge, had a good look and did an extensive physical exam. My swollen testicle, and accompanying artillery, were on full show. At that moment, I concluded this would become a regular occurrence, so, I just decided to have zero shame; after-all, everyone who was bearing witness to the demise of my modest pride was a professional.
The consultant said something showed-up on the ultrasound and we needed to do more blood tests, but that I was going to be staying for a while. One of his juniors told him that the bloods could be done with what they had, I was saved from the needle. It was then, right there, that my gut told me what would take a few days for the medicos to confirm.
Most people would probably have wanted to get home as soon as possible but I was out of pain and in such a daze that I was quite happy to be kept. Over the course of the next few days, my initial suspicion was, in my head, confirmed by the questions the doctors were asking.
On that Thursday afternoon, after several days of blood tests, a CT scan, and a second opinion from a specialist on Dublin, my consultant came into my bedroom with his two right-hand-guys, who had been asking me all the ‘not so subtle’ questions.
It was just like you’d imagine it, almost theatrical in nature. I was sitting-out on the armchair, again. The consultant came-in, asked me how I was, the usual small-talk, and sat on the bed across from me.
“There’s no really easy way to say this, but it appears you have a small localised cancer,” explained the doctor, as he rested his hand on mine, in a perfectly masculine but empathetic manner. I thought I would have been in more shock, but I just said: “Okay, what next?” I think he was more surprised by my reaction than I was by his averment.
“I did. You’re registrars don’t have the best poker-faces,” I joked. We all had a little laugh for ourselves. “I figured it out from the questions they were asking. Do we know what type of cancer?”
“Most likely testicular, but the spread is unusual. The specialist wants you transferred-up to him in the Mater. When a bed becomes available, we’ll send you up.”
I was strangely relieved. Days of knowing in my heart but not knowing for certain had come to an end. I didn’t cry. I thought I would, but I didn’t. I don’t know why. I’d tear-up every now and then but I never properly cried. In all likelihood, I had testicular cancer, and my odds of survival were good. I wasn’t certain, at that stage, but I had to be positive.
As that day went on, I started figuring-out how to tell people, now that it was confirmed. “A small localised cancer”, they were the words I settled on. Plagiarised fully, intentionally and unashamedly, from my consultant. He was a really lovely man, in fact, all the staff were. At the time, neither the consultant, nor I, were to know that the cancer wasn’t quite so small, or so localised.
I wanted to tell people, where possible, myself. There were certain people who I didn’t want to hear it second-hand, or get half a story, or worse, a tale which had been given legs. Months later, I was told that my younger cousins had heard I was dying, from people in school. They knew it wasn’t the case, but it goes to show you how stories grow legs.
To be continued... some day.
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Emmett Corcoran is a journalist based in Strokestown, Co Roscommon.
My good friend and former colleague Phelim O'Neill, of Phelim O'Neill Solicitors and Harringtons Solicitors, has launched a new website: gardastationsolicitors.ie. The new site is dedicated to providing legal advice in Garda stations.
Good luck to Phelim with the new project.