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Dublin: 18 °C Friday 19 July, 2019
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There is no cure for me. I will die from cancer.

Wendy Coughlan speaks openly about being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Wendy Coughlan

CANCER. A WORD that strikes dread into anyone diagnosed with this horrible disease.

In 2010 I was brought to the realisation that I was facing the rest of my life living with cancer – not an easy thing to come to terms with.

In the summer of 2009, I was enjoying life as a wife, mum, and granny (apart from my perennial concerns about double chins, a gammy knee and many failed diets). On a holiday to my native Canada in September I began to feel increasingly unwell.

Between then and Christmas I had various tests to ascertain what was causing my problem and the result was a diagnosis of diverticulosis. But I continued to be unwell and eventually a blockage in my small intestine was found, keyhole surgery performed to remove a tumour wrapped around the intestine and my bowel resected.

Great I thought. That solves my problem, all’s well.

I was convinced the tumour was benign

I attended a follow up visit with my consultant on my own, so sure was I that my problem had been solved. I was stunned to hear that breast cells were found in the tumour indicating breast cancer, which had spread to my intestine. I had been convinced the tumour was benign, was gone and I was fine. I was genuinely shocked to hear I had stage IV cancer (I had had a mammogram in November, which showed no sign of breast cancer).

At this point I was referred to the wonderful Professor John Crown. I asked about my prognosis and he explained that for stage IV lobular breast cancer the average life expectancy was five years with some patients getting less and some getting a bit more.

I vowed then and there that, if I had anything to do with it, I would be one of those who would “get a bit more”.

Further investigations revealed the cancer had also already spread to my left hip so radiation treatment began followed by oral chemotherapy. For three years I tolerated my chemotherapy treatment quite well, but in late 2013 I became increasingly unwell and by March 2014 scans revealed the cancer had spread to my abdomen.

I am now on my fifth chemotherapy drug. The most distressing thing in relation to my treatment has, I think, been the loss of my hair, eyebrows and lashes. However a lovely wig and regular make-up regime make this tolerable.

I have also lost 5 ½ stone, so those failed diets are a distant memory!

There is no cure for me

There is no cure for me. I will die from cancer. I don’t want to die. I have a wonderful husband, four fantastic children and six delightful grandchildren, all of whom I love beyond comprehension.

I like to think I’m the lynchpin of the family and hate to think how they will be able to manage without me.

But, despite missing me, as I know they will, I also know they will all be just fine. I know this because we have all been totally open in talking about the situation and the inevitability of my death.

We are able to discuss any aspect of my illness and by being able to talk so openly with my family (sometimes through tears; other times through laughter) they have lessened the burden of the disease for me.

Their support and the kindness of friends has given me the strength to continue my treatment in the most relaxed way I possibly can. (In fact, as I refer to my chemo days as “my treatment in St Vincent’s spa”— I am looked after exceptionally well by the wonderful staff).

When I was diagnosed I was in the leisurely process of writing my life story. I had bought a copy of the Hospice Foundation Life Storybook for each of my children and had been enjoying writing my memoirs so that they might learn all about their mum. Suddenly the need to finish those books became a priority. I immediately set to and finished the books so uncertain was I of how long I had to live.

Planning ahead 

As the illness progressed I also realised I needed to organise my affairs in order to make things easier for my family. To this end I got a copy of the Irish Hospice Foundation “Think Ahead” form.

It has been a fantastic tool, giving me the guidance I needed to note things of importance (i.e. bank account details, end of life preference, funeral wishes and other important information helpful for my family) which I know with certainty will be respected and carried out by those who love me. I would recommend everyone – not just those terminally ill – get a copy of the form and fill it in.

How do I cope with living with cancer? To be honest, I’m not really sure. I think it is a combination of things — my realism (I acknowledge I simply cannot change the situation), my character (patient and upbeat), my family (who love and support me totally), my friends (who keep the coffee and chat coming), and very importantly Prof Crown and his team (who continue to care for me with such kindness).

I have been blessed with the ability to cope with the devastation of this heartbreaking diagnosis with a pragmatic approach. I live each day with gratitude. I enjoy the good days and I cope with the bad ones as best I can. It hasn’t been easy as I have been very, very sick at times and had many hospital admissions. But throughout it all I try my best to be happy and keep smiling. I would like to leave this world knowing I never let the disease stifle my love of life.

Canadian-born Wendy Coughlan was diagnosed with Stage IV Breast Cancer in 2010. She lives with her husband, Padraig, in Greystones Co Wicklow and is an Ambassador for the Irish Hospice Foundation Think Ahead Programme. Wendy has four adult children and six grandchildren. 

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Wendy Coughlan

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