The way that Siobhan Walsh sees it, when her cancer returned last December, “the sickness was in the house”.
But it wasn’t “in her”.
“So it hasn’t consumed me as a human being, it hasn’t defined me, it doesn’t state how many hours I’m going to live,” she explains.
“It came to the house – it had to, that’s the reality of it – but it hasn’t taken up residence in me.
“Body wise, yes, you can see that there’s no hair, my limbs are very swollen… but in my soul and in my mentality, definitely not.”
And despite living with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, the 46-year-old mother of twins is determined to “live well” by making every moment count. Which includes running her passion project, IBU Botanicals, from her home in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, as her personal form of therapy.
The journey begins
Siobhan’s journey with breast cancer began in October 2016, after she noticed a “fleshy nodule” under her arm while in the shower.
“I remember joking, as I do, that if I’m fat under my arms now I better go on a mad regime of a diet,” she says; but by November, it had grown.
Still, when she brought one of the twins to the GP with an ear infection, she didn’t bring it up; until he happened to mention that he was closing the surgery earlier than usual that day because he had to break bad news of a late cancer diagnosis to another patient.
“I was sitting at home that evening and thought, ‘Oh my God, have I just been given a wake-up call here?’” recalls Siobhan, who “picked up the phone the following morning”, made an appointment and within a week, was referred to Cork for biopsy.
“The following week I got a phone call, ‘Look we have your results, can you come up tomorrow; and bring a relative with you?’ So you know straight away then,” says Siobhan, who recalls how she “cried, screamed and shouted” at home alone; before having to collect her twins, Eilidh and Darragh, from school.
“I kept saying, ‘Got to get it together, got to get it together: go have a shower, straighten yourself up’,” she recalls. “I had myself written off. In my head, there were funerals, there were wills, there was how much can I pack in in one go?”
With her sister and a close friend for support, Siobhan made the journey to Cork, where she was told she had HER2-positive breast cancer (HER2 is a protein that helps cancer cells to grow). While an “aggressive” cancer, she was advised that it should respond well to treatment, with nine rounds of chemotherapy to start as soon as possible, followed by a lumpectomy and radiation.
Siobhan, however, chose to wait to start treatment in January because she wanted as normal a Christmas as possible with the children, who were just five at the time.
“But Christmas Day was the strangest day ever,” she reflects. “I ate Christmas dinner in my pyjamas, I didn’t go to mass, I barely got through the entire day, and it was a complete and utter washout. I was barely able to keep up for the children with Santa and everything else. And then I kept thinking, ‘OK, 1 January is going to be D-Day.’”
Cancer during COVID-19
First time around, Siobhan’s mentality was very much to “fight” the cancer and while the treatment was gruelling, she was hopeful she had come out the other side after a year.
“It was ‘finished’,” she recalls. “As far as I was concerned, that was that chapter and that was done.”
In December 2019, however, Siobhan discovered another lump under her arm.
“This time, there was no waiting around,” she says, with the confirmation coming shortly after Christmas that it was a subcutaneous local metastasis ie, a spread from the original site, just under the skin.
Fortunately, this was localised, and after surgery to remove the new tumour, radiation was scheduled, just as lockdown began. Due to the risk of COVID-19, Siobhan made the decision to drive herself from Ballybunion to Cork for 28 days straight (excluding weekends) for her treatment; which took its toll as time went on.
“It becomes almost like a movie that you’re starring in and you’re waiting for the next episode. You’re outside looking in thinking, ‘Well, how is she going to get on today?’” says Siobhan, who says that the hardest thing was worrying about her children’s well-being.
“Because – coupled with COVID – children’s mental health is shaky enough during this period; they don’t need to be worried whether Mom is going to survive or not,” says Siobhan, who admits there were moments after her second diagnosis that she did “allow myself to go down on my knees in grief”.
Before always getting up again. “The shower is a great place to have a cry,” she says. “It washes it away and then you can get out and nobody knows. Especially the kids. It’s a very safe place to have a cry.”
But having “allowed” herself that space to grieve, Siobhan decided to take a very different approach this time with her diagnosis.
“For some unknown reason, I just became very peaceful and calm and just kind of rolled into the whole system of the treatment and for the first time I actually thought about myself; and not the survivorship or fighting it,” says Siobhan, who recently finished chemotherapy and is receiving herceptin and perjeta (antibodies) every three weeks in the fight against metastatic disease.
While her medical team are happy with the response to the treatment, whether or not the cancer will return is “the million-dollar question”. Siobhan is positive about the future, but at the same time, does not get caught up in “what ifs”, choosing instead to “live well” and making the most of every moment.
Part of this approach has involved her hobby-turned-small business, IBU Botanicals. “Ibu” is the Indonesian word for mother; and a nod to her training as a botanical aromatherapist while in Asia on a career break from her job as an administrator with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) back in 2005.
Over the years, Siobhan would make her own soaps and skincare products for personal use, but last year, decided to sell them locally in the newly established Ballybunion Community Market as a summer project with the kids to earn some pocket money.
The reaction was so positive, however, that she has since expanded the range to include everything from bath bombs and hand creams to candles with dreamy scent concoctions such as rocket, iris and rose, affordably priced and packaged as sustainably as possible eg, her soaps are sold in fabric poaches crafted by local seamstresses.
More importantly, however, it has given her a sense of purpose during her treatment, while on leave from work.
“It’s the reason I get up out of bed, along with the children and my home life,” she says. “It has been my reason for being positive, for keeping the children positive. ‘Mom, are you making soap today? Will we do the packaging, will we do the labels?’ It has brought us together. There’s a togetherness in it.”
Make the most of every moment
But it’s not just IBU she has found time for. Blasting ABBA in the car, an impromptu picnic, bringing the twins for a 99, meeting a friend for a coffee; these are all joys she has rediscovered in her quest to live every day as well as she can.
Reading also brings her immense comfort. She references a quote from the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue that she came across the other day.
“May all that is unlived in you blossom into a future graced with love,” she repeats softly. “And I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to say.”
It’s not always easy to stay positive. As a mother of young children – now nine – her greatest fear would be to leave them “without giving them my entire love”.
“I would be lying through my teeth if I didn’t say that there are waves sometimes where it comes into my head and I think, ‘Will I get to see them go to secondary school? I wonder how they will be as adults?’” says Siobhan; but she tries not to let it overwhelm her.
“Like the sickness, fear can come into your house; but it’s certainly not staying in me and it’s certainly not welcome in the house.”
And while Siobhan understands that everybody’s cancer journey and mindset is individual, her message is that to her, a diagnosis does not mean “the end”.
“I live every single day well. You might say, ‘What’s well Siobhan?’ Well is well in my heart and well in my head. They are the two best things,” she concludes.
“Whether you have five days or 20 days or 30 years; you can live well.”
For further information, follow “IBU Botanicals” on Facebook. Special thanks to The Cliff House Hotel for facilitating this interview and photoshoot.