News - 19th October 2017

Learning to dance in the rain


To say my cancer diagnosis three years ago was a shock would be an understatement. I remember being at home with my four children, aged between five and ten when the news came. I was in shock, cried like a baby and all I wanted was to have my husband and parents with me to try to make sense of it all. They all rallied around on that Friday evening and we all cried together. The whole thing seemed like a dream sequence. These things aren’t supposed to happen to me. Who was going to look after my husband and the kids when I was gone? In my mind I was going to be like the turkey who wouldn’t see Christmas.


During the following weeks I met with my oncologist who explained that I was early Stage 3. Cancer generally has four stages, four being the most invasive. Each stage has stages and I was early Stage 3. This meant that the cancer had spread to my Lymph Nodes and although the surgery may have been enough to remove the cancer, it was recommended that I have ‘belt and braces’ chemotherapy. This didn’t sound too bad until I consulted with Dr Google where horror stories abounded of how awful the chemo would be. That was the last time I visited Dr Google and I decided from then on that sometimes the less you know the better. All of the scientific figures online that measured my life into percentages and probabilities haunted me then, and still do. I have since taken the advice of a lovely lady Cheryl (who has since sadly passed away) and decided to let the doctors worry about the percentages and numbers and I’d do what I was told (a welcome delight for my husband!) by my medical team who had been appointed to my care.


The chemotherapy was very hard and due to my rare adverse reactions to both chemo drugs. My original surgery gifted me a temporary illeosotmy which I had come to live with but never felt comfortable with. It restricted every area of my life and my outings centered around proximity to the bathroomand a consciousness about my appearance. I gained weight – who does that when they have cancer? – and I was physically weak and unable to do most things around the house. The chemotherapy had damaged nerves in my hands and feet so these were always burning and really, I was just miserable.


Almost a year after the original diagnosis we told our children precisely what I was going through. On the day we told them, the band One Direction broke up and our kids seemed more upset by that than about their recovering mom! Thanks One Direction for taking the focus off me that weekend! Kids are amazing and deserve a lot more respect for what they can handle than we give them credit for.


At that time the fear of my cancer returning consumed my every thought and deed and a wonderful therapist helped me to see that maybe I could find, in myself, the strength that no drugs could give, to get us through this. I had my illeostomy reversed during the following months and returned to work. It was gruelling but I had my husband’s support and many truly amazing people helped me in several ways to get through each day. Incredibly, those who helped me the most were those whomI least expected to rally around me.


As I recovered, I saw that my second chance at life needed to involve me taking on more challenges. My husband suggested Tralee parkrun several times and although I was massively self-conscious to go running in public due to weight gain following my treatment, I gave it a go.


My main fear about running in public had centered around the fact that I was overweight. Pennys and Lidl didn’t stock fitness gear large enough for me and I thought that I looked like a large wobbling mass of woman trying to move fast – not to mention run. I daren’t enter a sports shop and ask for my size because I was just too embarrassed. Thank God Dunnes Stores had some ‘larger than life’ fitness wear.


Shock absorber on board (only the ladies will get that one!), I layered up on the first day to cover up the bulges and bumps and off I went. I thought everyone would be looking at me wobbling along and that I would be last over the finish line, unable to beg for resuscitation. So imagine my delight when I discovered that there was a Tail Walker who was behind me the whole way.


On that first day Dawn O’Brien, whom I had never met before, quietly whispered to me to “keep going” as she passed me. From then on I have done just that, caught the parkrun bug and now I wouldn’t miss it for the world, even when we are away. We try to make the run. I owe Dawn a huge debt of gratitude for those few words as I may not have kept coming without her encouragement. Dawn is one of several others who give this encouragement so freely and warmly each week. A clap, a smile, a nod, a “well done” is all I need to feel like someone thought I wasn’t doing too badly at all.


Some of the parkrun photos posted of me online also helped me to overcome my “running in public fear”. There was more than one that I stuck on the fridge and biscuit box to keep me out of there! After a few months I began to notice some improvements and by that stage I had met a few runners who jollied me along helping me to forget my wobbles. I’m still not sure if I really run or just move fast but I definitely have more confidence and I don’t care who sees me in my running gear now because I’m not as overweight as I was. I still have a distance to go in the BMI stakes but that will happen too.


parkrun gives me a weekly focus to exercise and I even manage to do other exercise during the week. It provides me with a short term doable goal with like-minded people. I also love that my four children regularly take part and volunteer at Tralee junior parkrun and that all are junior 10 parkrun veterans! I love volunteering at the junior event also and seeing the juniors each week achieving their own milestones and giving back as volunteers.


My attitude to cancer is still hugely fearful mixed with an effort to eat more healthily, avoid carcinogens and give new things a go. Cancer has robbed me of time in the past and I’ll try not to waste too much time worrying about it in the future. I still have rough days when I think that the cancer could come back but if I didn’t have those I wouldn’t appreciate the good days as much. I marvel at other Tralee parkrunners who are living with cancer and who put on their gear each Saturday and run regardless of how awful they must be feeling. Like me, I’m sure the feel-good factor they get from others in parkrun is the strong medicine that no oncologist can prescribe.


Of course first timers at parkrun are going to be nervous but that feeling wears off very soon after the starting whistle. The hardest part is to get out of bed each Saturday morning, the easiest part is doing the 5k!


What has happened to my family since August 2014 isn’t a story or a journey – it’s just life. We haven’t been brave or inspiring, we have just done what anyone else would have done.


Anybody reading this has or knows someone who has cancer, there is life after cancer diagnosis, and parkrun and the people there will help you to see it. A quote that helps me on bad days that might strike a chord with someone out there:


”Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”


To all at parkrun, here’s to the rain dance!


Stella O’Shea
parkrunner A1700589

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