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Nurse Witnessing cancer and going through it yourself are two vastly different things

Debbie Murphy has gone from caring for patients with cancer to becoming a patient herself.

Deborah Murphy is a 48-year-old wife, mother of two and a Clinical Nurse Manager of a Community Palliative Care Team. She has been a nurse for 30 years, 26 of those have been in Palliative Care. Ahead of Daffodil Day, which takes place this Friday, 22 March, she shares her experience of cancer.

IN JULY 2023, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I joined the thousands of men, women and children who that year became a cancer statistic.

More than 42,000 people in Ireland each year receive a cancer diagnosis. One in two of us will be diagnosed at some point in our lives. But behind those statistics are the lives of people affected by cancer.

In my work as a palliative care nurse, I have looked after people of all ages affected by cancer, from young children right up to people in older age. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

My experience

After finding a lump in my breast and going to my GP, I was referred to the local triple assessment clinic and seen within two weeks. It took a further two weeks for the mammogram and ultrasound.

Two days before I was due to go on a long-awaited sunshine family holiday my office phone rang. A cancellation appointment was free, and I had to go immediately. That was the last phone call I took in my office. An hour after that call my world, as I knew it, fell apart. I was all but told I had cancer, but they had to wait for test results to come back before they could tell me definitively.

I tried to return to work straight after it, but looking back I was in total shock. I was totally blindsided. I remember calling my husband and telling two colleagues, and then I drove home. That’s the last time I have been able to work. The last time my life didn’t have cancer in it.

From carer to patient

I’ve worked within the health system and supported so many people through navigating cancer for so long that I thought my experience and professional knowledge would help me. But witnessing cancer and going through it yourself are two vastly different things.

Being a Palliative Care Nurse, the majority of patients you see are not going to recover from their cancer. My view of cancer is very skewed.

So, for me, it became quite difficult to reconcile that with my own diagnosis. It’s as if I had to de-programme myself from associating cancer with death, which is much easier said than done.

The waiting around was unbearable. Despite being fairly certain I had cancer, they couldn’t confirm my diagnosis for weeks. It felt like it went on forever. You would think that surely this process could be streamlined for patients and the clinicians involved so that the waiting around is kept to a minimum.

  • Why are waiting lists for life-saving scans so long? The Noteworthy team wants to find out. Support this project here

Following my lumpectomy, it was another eight-week wait until my chemotherapy started. The wait for chemotherapy, although longer, mentally, felt easier. The surgery had at least removed the cancer by that point. Don’t get me wrong, it was still unbearable, painfully hard, but it was less mentally torturous.

Eight months on from my diagnosis, I had my last planned chemotherapy last week and now I’m between treatments awaiting my radiotherapy to start.

Working within the health system and being on the receiving end of it has been an interesting experience. Despite the support I’ve had, at times, I have felt very alone and lacking in guidance. The nurses, doctors, administration staff, kitchen staff, cleaners and porters are amazing and give you everything they can. There just aren’t enough of them.

Getting my head shaved when my hair was falling out was extremely hard. I now look like a cancer patient. People can see now. I can’t hide what is happening. The one silver lining is that it is great not having to wash your hair!

Difficult treatments

I don’t want to scare readers, but for me, chemotherapy has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life. I found it physically, emotionally and psychologically devastating. Every cycle presented its challenges, but each time, somehow you dig deeper. You dig deeper than you ever thought would be necessary or possible for you to do. And you get through it.

The Irish Cancer Society has been there to help me get through it. I have signposted people to their services before but now I had to take the leap as a service user. I have had so much support from using their website, their online health and well-being courses, their Daffodil nurses, complementary therapists and more recently, free counselling sessions.

My husband and I decided to tell our children the age-appropriate truth about what was happening to me. Before speaking to them, I prepared with an Irish Cancer Society counsellor, and this was hugely helpful. We have always kept the conversation open, and they come back with questions when they want. They say children are so resilient and it’s true. They have taught me so much through this experience. When I lost my hair, one barely reacted, said I looked funny bald, but the other needed me to wear my wig until he adjusted. We went at their pace.

One afternoon my husband was taking them to get a haircut – we would usually do this together. My son who doesn’t like change asked why I wasn’t going and the other just said straight out ‘why would she come? She doesn’t need to, she hasn’t got any hair!’ We all burst out laughing. He gave us a glimmer that day.

Support is key to recovery

I have had so much unbelievable support from my family and friends. Being diagnosed with cancer really shows you who is important in your life, and who you are important to. It has affected so many people in my life, the ripple effect is massive. I’ve been told so many times that ‘you’ll get your life back when you get through the treatment’, ‘you’ll feel normal again’.

I know this is said with love and good intent and meant to reassure me. But I know my life will never be the same again. My life has changed forever. I will need to learn how to move forward, but I know I am surrounded by love, support and guidance as I head into the next chapter of my life as a breast cancer survivor.

I will get through the next step, dig deep and move into a new life. There’s no other choice. There’s too much to live for and too much life to live, not to waste. They say it takes a village to rear a child, I think it takes an army to get through cancer and my army is strong.

Deborah Murphy is a Clinical Nurse Manager of a Community Palliative Care Team. The Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day takes place on Friday, 22 March. To learn more, visit

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