Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C

'My sister died from it, then my mam had it, then I got it'

Arc Cancer Support helps people deal with the emotional and physical challenges they face before, during and after treatment.


EVERY YEAR OVER 30,000 people in Ireland hear the phrase, ‘You have cancer’.

One in three people here will develop cancer at some stage in their lives, and an ageing population means cancer incidence in Ireland is likely to double by 2040.

More people are getting cancer but, thanks to advancements in treatment and better screening programmes, more people are surviving it too.

Cancer treatments can be gruelling, both physically and mentally. Beyond the medical treatment patients receive, they often also need extra support.

ARC Cancer Support Centres use a holistic approach to help people with cancer deal with the emotional and physical challenges they face before, during and after treatment.

The centres, based in Dublin, also provide support for the partners, children and carers of cancer patients.

Founded in 1994, Arc provides a number of free services and courses, including counselling, psychological support and complementary treatments such as acupuncture and reflexology – many of which are facilitated by volunteers.

IMG_8692 Patricia Pugh, Arc's services manager

Located on South Circular Road and Eccles Street, the centres help thousands of cancer patients and their loved ones every year. Almost a quarter of the people who use the services are from outside Dublin and travel to the capital for treatment. recently spent a day with service users and volunteers at the South Circular Road centre.

The patients, some of whom have since got the all-clear, told us about their cancer journeys and the ongoing support Arc provides for them.

‘My sister died from it, then my mam had it, then I got it’

There is a history of breast cancer in Sandra O’Rourke’s family. She was diagnosed with the disease in 2005.

“I had a full mastectomy and then I had chemotherapy, I had eight sessions, then radiotherapy – 33 sessions.

We’ve a family history [of breast cancer] so it’s one after the other after the other. My sister died from it first and then my mam had it and then I got it and then my sister got it. So mam and my sister died from it but two of us have survived … Dad’s sister and mam’s sister had it as well.

A number of Sandra’s relatives are regularly screened for cancer, given the high incidence of it in her family.

IMG_8708 Sandra

Sandra, from Dublin, stresses the importance of partners and family members getting support at Arc.

“They are amazing here, my husband Leo couldn’t cope after I got the cancer and he had counselling and it was just fantastic. Every time he came in, his glass was half empty and he used to come out and he’d say, ‘Wow’, they used to turn everything around.

“The extraordinary thing was he actually got cancer himself, he had a kidney removed. He used to say to me, ‘Why are you so calm and I’m in such a state?’ I said to him, ‘I have it and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ When he got it himself he said, ‘I understand exactly what you were talking about.’”

Arc also helped Sandra’s father deal with panic attacks while he was undergoing treatment for bowel cancer.

Sometimes it’s the families who have to come to Arc moreso than the patients because the patients feel, ‘If I come I’m actually saying ‘I’m not coping” so they kind of wait and wait and wait, and sometimes they’re a good bit down the line before they do ask for help.

Sandra helps run a knitting group at Arc.

She tells us: “We always say in the group, ‘Now, what goes on this room, stays in this room’ so people will tell you stories of what’s happening at home … they’re frustrated with people not helping them at home.”

Sandra says simple things like someone else putting on a wash without having to be asked to do so can be a big help for cancer patients.

She says the atmosphere in Arc is “very serene, beautiful”.

“What’s lovely too is, you can literally just come in from the hospital and be very stressed out, maybe you’ve been waiting around for a few hours having treatment and you can just pop in here for a cup of tea and you can cry, scream your head off – because you don’t want to do it at home, you just want to get on with it.”

‘Living with bone cancer is not nice, but it could be worse’

Mary Clifford is from Donegal but has been living in Dublin for many years. She turned 70 last month. She had breast cancer and a separate tumour in the 1990s.

She was well for several years after that, but got bad news last summer.

“I just celebrated my 70th birthday last month. I’m celebrating survival as well as my birthday.

“I was first diagnosed in December ’92, when I was 45, with breast cancer. That was a bit of a shock.

I had surgery, I had chemotherapy, I had radiotherapy. I was doing okay, there was no support group in those days. I was doing okay and then I got a tumour in my lymph gland in my chest, which was inoperable, and then more chemo.

“That was tougher actually than the breast cancer, the chemo for that. Then, since the spring of ’96, I’ve been fine, thank God, great until July of last year.

“I got a severe pain in my arm and my back and it turned out to be bone cancer. That was a bit of surprise as well but I’d survived all those years and I was thankful.”

step0004 Mary

Mary heard about Arc through friends who volunteer there. She comes here regularly and is a big fan of the yoga classes.

“As I said to the teacher one day, it’s like getting an injection of something powerful into us.

“I’m trusting my doctor, my oncologist, to look after the medical side, but come in here for support.”

Mary is currently doing an eight-week course for people with secondary cancer, the topics they discuss include nutrition, fatigue and stress.

She is receiving a bone strengthener every month and is remaining positive about her future, noting how grateful she is to have the strength to be able to look after her four-year-old grandson Jake.

Living with bone cancer is not nice, but it could be worse. It could have come back in my brain or my lungs or my liver, but it came back in my bones and I think that’s the best place it could have come back. Sometimes I forget about it, especially when I come in here.

Mary and her husband Michael have been together for 45 years and married for 42. She wishes something like Arc was around in the 1990s, when she first became sick, telling us:

“My goodness, if this had been around 25 year ago, my husband and children would have gained from it. They didn’t know where to turn because nobody really gave support. All I can say is, Arc is just a godsend for people like me.

When I got cancer first, my youngest child was 10 and I remember praying that I would survive to see him making his confirmation. He’s now 35, another son of mine is getting married this year.

“Sometimes, my husband, when I look back he’d go to the supermarket and people would say, ‘Oh, how’s Mary?’ Nobody said, ‘Oh, how’s Michael?’ If Arc had been here for Michael then … It was only afterwards I released he went through an awful lot emotionally.”

‘You’re literally cast adrift and you’re lost’

Brian Shannon, 56, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January 2016.

Now a regular visitor and volunteer, he says he doesn’t remember his first visit to Arc. After getting a cancer diagnosis, he notes: “Everything fades, you don’t realise what’s happening to you.”

Brian was coming out of the Mater Hospital when his wife Brenda suggested they call into Arc. He began attending a men’s prostate cancer workshop the following week.

step0003 Brian

Brian recalls how “invaluable” it was to be around men going through the same thing.

“Would we have voluntarily gone to Arc? Probably not because we’re men. The big thing about it all is you get to talk and listen.

“More importantly to listen to other people and some of the problems they have, you’d think these problems would never affect you. But the big one for everybody was counselling … they all found it brilliant, very, very helpful.”

Brian says some men in the support group, who ranged in age from 35 to over 80, initially struggled to speak up.

“You had people who came in for two, three or four sessions, never said a word but then, all of a sudden, some kind of a barrier was broken and they participated.”

IMG_8666 Brian receiving acupuncture

Brian says Arc provides support not available elsewhere.

“The consultants, the surgeons, the medical people, they’re all very good at what they do and we’re lucky to have them, it’s great.

But when the consultant is finished it’s like your mechanic saying, ‘Okay, the car is working’, but you’re literally cast adrift and you’re lost basically and alone and you don’t actually know that all these things you’re experiencing are normal until you go somewhere like Arc and you start understanding, just by listening initially, everyone is in the same boat and we do need support.

“That’s why the word I would use to describe Arc and their services is invaluable.”

On the day we visited, Brian was receiving an acupuncture treatment. David Corbally provides free weekly acupuncture sessions at the centre.

IMG_8672 David and Brian

He says complementary therapies like acupuncture are proven to help cancer patients deal with various symptoms.

“I’d see people here at all different stages of their cancer journey. With things like chemotherapy or radiation therapy, very often we’re trying to counterbalance the side-effects that they’ll experience whilst going through that; things like nausea, fatigue, pain, stiffness, peripheral neuropathy – lack of sensations in the legs and hands.

“These are the kinds of thing that people would commonly experience,” David explains.

‘The physical effects of the radiation and the chemo are tough’

Edwina Halpin was diagnosed with cervical cancer in October 2014.

IMG_8728 Edwina

The 38-year-old recalls: “I had a few minor health issues – fatigue, back pain – which I put down to stress. I went for a routine check-up and a smear and it came back as abnormal. I went for a follow-up investigation and a colposcopy.

“It was a big shock, I had just got back from a sun holiday.

“I have plenty of friends and family who have had abnormal smears and they’ve had treatments to deal with that but for it to actually be cancerous … I was just one of the unlucky ones.”

Most of the tumour was removed via surgery, before Edwina underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy to “throw the kitchen sink at it to make sure it’s nuked, more or less”.

IMG_8713 Edwina in a reflexology session

She says waiting for test results to come back was one of the hardest things to deal with. Her prognosis was good though and she tried to remain positive.

“I had the treatment over Christmas so it was a bit surreal, that time of year when you’re in the middle of winter.

The physical effects of the radiation and the chemo are tough, and there’s the emotional effect of it as well. The fear comes over you, you start worrying about worst case scenarios, you’re avoiding the internet and stuff like that.

Edwina started coming to Arc for group therapy sessions and holistic treatments.

She says the “sense of community” and “mutual support” at the centre have played a large part in helping her recover emotionally.

“I’ve referred to it before as a shelter in a storm. I always know I can call in and get support. They really are brilliant.”

IMG_8711 Edwina in a reflexology session

Drop-in centres

Arc’s drop-in centres are open from Monday to Thursday from 10am to 4pm (with later opening hours on Tuesdays on Eccles Street and Wednesdays on South Circular Road), and on Friday from 10am to 2pm. All services are provided by professional staff and trained volunteers, and are free of charge.

Patricia Pugh, Arc’s Services Manager, tells us: “We provide services for people from when they get the diagnosis, all the way through the treatment and following treatment.

A lot of people would come in following treatment and may have dealt physically with the diagnosis, but psychologically it can often hit them six months or a year later.

It costs over €700,000 annually to run the centres. They receive some funding from the HSE, the Irish Cancer Society and others, but about 63% of their money comes from fundraising and donations.

Arc’s next big fundraiser is the Dip in the Nip on 18 June. To donate or for more information about the services Arc provides, visit their website.

All images: Órla Ryan/

Read: ‘Being able to talk to other parents has helped ease the worry’

Read: ‘Us men don’t talk about things, we think ‘Ah, it’ll go away”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.