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Column I wrote a book about terminal cancer. Then, I was told I had it

Author Mary McCarthy describes the moment she learned she had cancer, and her feelings about death.

When Mary McCarthy began to write about a character in her book who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she never imagined a few years later she would find herself in the same circumstances. She writes:

I STARTED MY book, After the Rain, eight years ago. It was a story about a woman with terminal cancer and how she and her family had to learn to deal with it. This March I was diagnosed with it myself.

So is this a case of life imitating art or what? My story is very different from my heroine, Emer’s experience, although the prognosis is the same.

For all of 2011 I suffered acute pain with a trapped sciatic nerve. Excruciating. I tried all the usual remedies including physio, acupuncture, heat wraps and I was stooped over as that helped to release the nerve. I went as far as buying a walker so I could walk the dog in the park — I moved quickly and resembled Quasimodo on speed. Eventually  I agreed to back  surgery which was due to happen in January. Two weeks before the operation the pain disappeared and I was walking perfectly. A miracle. The surgery was cancelled and in March at a follow-up visit with the surgeon, he suggested I should take up Pilates to strengthen my core muscles. Grand idea, until I got a nagging pain in my right rib and I became a bit breathless so I went for a chest X-ray.


The results came in – lung full of fluid – so I had a bag for for five days’ draining which I referred to as my Louis Vuitton bag. My case was serious – the fluid contained secondary cancer cells.

That’s it, I said to my oncologist and he wondered how I knew. My brother, Niall, had died eleven years previously and another brother, Declan, had died from lung cancer two years before.

I asked him how long I had. He knew I wanted to hear the truth and told me I had 18 to 24 months, maybe longer.“At least I won’t get Alzheimers,” I concluded cheerfully. I think he thought I was a nutcase due to my calm reaction to the news that I was going to die. When the doctors said I would experience a range of emotions, I said I knew already, as I’d written all about it. I told the doctor about my novel and he was astounded.

They then had to find my primary cancer. After loads of tests, nothing was found. Cancer with no tumour – but apparently this happens to one in 20 people. So much for being healthy I thought. I’d quit smoking, I had just got my gold card from Weight Watchers and had given up the booze for Lent. I’m undergoing chemotherapy which is not for the faint-hearted. I have bad days and good days.

Family and friends

My friends are remarkable. I cannot put into words the support I am getting from them and my family. My son Dara is devastated. He lives in Rome, but is coming back to live with me. I told him my only regret was not having a grandchild to which he responded: “I didn’t know there was a rush on.” Neither did I!

I’m not actually dying at the moment, but I will die from this. How do I feel about dying? I suppose I’ll be scared at the time but I’ll probably be so sick by then I won’t care. I’ll insist on as much morphine as possible —I’m such a wimp the dentist has to sedate me! While I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’m keeping my options open, just in case. If there is another world I’d love to meet my idol, George Harrison.

My worries are any mother’s worries. Will my son be okay? Will he be able to live in our lovely home when I’m gone? The gas bill is astronomical! My dog Bennie will miss me like hell because he is my shadow. I take every day as it comes. I want no pity, sympathy or platitudes.

I have had a nice life. I loved my teaching job for 34 years and took early retirement five years ago. I truly loved writing my books. I have seen the places I wanted to see and I have extraordinary people around me. I’ve managed to retain my sense of humour, thankfully. There really is a funny side to everything. To my delight, I have my fifth book published. Things could be a lot worse! Or as Emer in the novel says: things always seem better after the rain.

After the Rain is published by Poolbeg and is out now priced at €9.99

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