I met with my friend and hair dresser Ellie Ann the following week. I told her that I might have to do chemo and we talked about losing my hair. Electric Picnic was coming up a couple of weeks later and I had decided I was going. I wasn’t ready to give up my life just yet. I had always wanted to do something wild with my hair, and if I was going to lose it, sure now was a good a time as any! I was going to shave one side and dye the rest pink for the festival, maybe even do a Mohawk, I always wanted one of them. I used to wear bright coloured wigs to it every year, this year I could go mad and dye my own hair a bright colour.
A week after I was given a stage 3 diagnosis, I was back to the hospital for a full body PET scan. This was to see if the cancer was contained in the breast and lymph area. In preparation for the scan, there are various foods you can’t eat the day before. They are mostly carbohydrates including pasta, bread, potatoes, sugar, sweets, chocolate and fruit. You can eat fish, meat and vegetables. Why is this? Well they don’t really tell you the reason but I would later realise once I had started researching all things nutrition and cancer, that those foods all turn into glucose in the body, which is a cancer cells main preferred source of fuel. Eliminating them from the body for a day before a scan makes the cancer cells hungry. So when you are injected with the radioactive dye and drink a sugar solution, the glucose goes straight to the cancer cells (because they are greedier than regular cells and have a higher uptake for glucose) and carries the radioactive dye with it, making the cancerous areas of the body light up on the screen. The scan takes about 20 minutes, it’s a painless process. The staff in the PET department in the Mater were so lovely to me. They are a caring bunch and know how vulnerable and sensitive people who need those types of scans are. After the scan, I met the nurse and she pointed out that my neck, chest and face were very red. I had a reaction to the dye. It wasn’t serious, she said, but be careful on the next scan as it might be worse next time. She offered me a steroid injection which I declined. I said I would wait and see if it went away. It did, after about 10 minutes. I was given a cereal bar and a juice box. Both of which were full of sugar. Not a very clever practice for a hospital to carry out SEEING AS I HAD CANCER AND SUGAR FEEDS CANCER!! These type of unhealthy practices really annoy me. They’re supposed to be a place of health. The vending machines in the waiting areas are full of rubbish too. It’s actually hard to get something semi healthy to eat there.
I was due to meet another doctor after the PET scan, a female medical oncologist this time. The last guy was a surgeon. A different doctor met me though and went through my PET scan results with me. He was a nice kind of a guy, you could tell he was really into the science bit by the way he described things. He looked at my PET scan results and started to bring me through the process of what would happen. He talked about the side effects of chemotherapy, how I would lose my hair, maybe my nails, how I might develop leukaemia at a later date from the toxic residue left in my body after treatment. Then he talked about how it would make me infertile, how I could harvest my eggs before I started if I thought I wanted to have more children. He was so matter of fact about it all. A bit robot like. All of this information was being thrown at me and most of it was going over my head. I knew it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t take in much of what he was saying, I had a lightbulb flashing in my head and my attention was drawn to it. The oncologist continued to talk about what would happen in the coming weeks and months if I chose to do chemotherapy. And then he disappeared into the corridor for a minute, came back in with a look of real remorse on his face and asked if he could examine me again. I said no problem.
He felt my abdomen and asked me to return to the chair so we could talk further. He said he had made a terrible mistake and that the PET scan showed that the cancer had spread to my liver and it was now classified as stage 4. The female professor came into the room to talk to me. She was cold and direct. She would become a source of intense anxiety for me on future encounters. She wanted to talk me through what stage 4 meant. It meant surgery was off the table. It meant my cancer was incurable. It was in my blood. It meant that my treatment options were now ongoing chemotherapy, for as long as my body can handle it, and maybe options for clinical trials. We both knew that clinical trials actually meant that it was the end of the road and now I would become a guinea pig for medical research. No thanks. I was told that I would have a few years to live if I did the treatment they suggested. This was the 22% 5 year survival rate I had come across earlier. And if I didn’t do it? I would have a few months to live. You are going to die of breast cancer Mairead, she said, staring at me with her icy eyes and her pursed, snooty lips. Even if I did the chemotherapy, I would still die of breast cancer. She told me that stage 4 cancer cannot be cured by chemotherapy, it will, at best, possibly extend my life for a few years. But those few years would be spent sick, bald and a shell of my former self. She said they would work my treatment schedule around birthdays, holidays, Christmas. She said I could still have a good quality of life, it just wouldn’t be for very long. So I can go on holidays now, can I? Cheers for that! A small consolation. It didn’t sound very appealing to me. I wanted more than a few years. I wanted my life back. I wanted to heal my body. I knew it could be done!
That lightbulb was shining bright in my mind by now. A huge surge of relief passed into my body. I felt relaxed. I felt like I knew exactly what to do. Or rather, I knew exactly what not to do. I knew chemotherapy wasn’t the path for me. I was told as much by the oncologist, it won’t save my life, it will give me a few years but that wasn’t enough for me. My baby girl wasn’t even 2. I was only 32, how unfair was that? I didn’t want to die in a hospital bed and have her remember me as a sick person. I wasn’t a sick person. It wouldn’t define me. I wanted to see her grow up. The thoughts of not being able to do that were so painful, I couldn’t even go there. Maybe I wanted to have more children. Was any of that possible now? I knew that the chemotherapy route would make it impossible. It would only end in death, a long, drawn out, painful death. What could be worse? I told the oncologist that I needed time to think about what I wanted to do. She reminded me that I was running out of time, the window is getting smaller every day, I might not even be eligible for chemo if I leave it too long. I must do it and quick if I want to live. They left the room and myself and Paul turned to each other and we smiled. I told him I felt relieved that it was a stage 4 diagnosis and he said the same. And the blessing in disguise? Well now we had options. We could do our research and find out what was going to work for us. We were a team in this and we would take on this challenge together. We weren’t even upset. We actually laughed when we were leaving the clinic and said thank feck it’s stage 4. If it was stage 3, I would have been mad not to have done chemo.
But now the challenge was about to begin. What am I going to do? What is the ‘alternative route?’, Who do I talk to about this? Is there anyone else doing it?
At Electric Picnic: I managed to keep my hair, long and blonde.
Next time… Telling my friends, two Athlone angels come to the rescue and turning to criminal activities to get well