When four women living within a three-mile radius of each other in Scotstown, Co Monaghan, were diagnosed with cancer, they not only formed a deep friendship; they spearheaded a fundraiser dubbed “Charolais Angels”.
And last month, Bernie Sherry, Sandra Meehan, Róisín McKenna and Yvonne Keenan were delighted to hand over a cheque for over €36,000 split between the Irish Cancer Society and the Crocus Support Centre in Monaghan; raised after local children Shannon, Peter and Nadine McCarra selflessly donated their pet calf George for auction at Ballybay Mart in October.
Here, the women share their individual journeys through cancer; and their important messages for ICL readers.
When Bernie Sherry began to experience extreme fatigue in 2019, she put it down to the demands of living and working on a dairy and poultry farm, volunteering as health and wellbeing officer with the GAA and all that goes with being a mother of two
“I just didn’t feel well in myself,” explains Bernie, who had just turned 49. “But look it, I’m like any woman or any mother or daughter or sister; everybody looks after everybody, but they don’t necessarily look after their own [self].”
In spring 2020, however, Bernie noticed what looked like an indent- “like a slight collapse”- on her right breast.
As COVID had hit, it was very difficult to get a GP appointment, but Bernie did manage to contact a consultant she knew in a different speciality and was referred to the Mater in Dublin to be triaged (physical examination, mammogram and biopsy).
Waiting two weeks for the results was “the longest two weeks” of her life. Unfortunately, Bernie was diagnosed with breast cancer and on 30 April 2020, underwent a mastectomy and lymph node removal, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
As gruelling as that process was, however, Bernie says the most difficult thing was seeing the worry in her husband Pauric and children, John (18) and Hannah (15).
“When cancer hits a household, it changes a household,” she says. “You can see them hurting, even though you’re the one who is sick.”
To add to the stress, an outbreak of avian flu meant they lost 40,000 hens just as Bernie was about to start chemo.
“It’s unbelievable that you’ve lost your whole livelihood,” she reflects; but looking back now- as difficult as it was- it did free Pauric to bring Bernie to Dublin for treatment. The couple are very grateful for those who stepped in at the time to help with milking and other farm tasks.
Bernie finished treatment, but by May 2021, says “there was something niggling” her.
“It just didn’t feel I was going anywhere, moving forward in myself and I was trying, but [I had] no energy,” she says.
Bernie demanded a scan for reassurance. Sadly, that showed that her cancer had spread to the bone, with the devastating prognosis that she had two to five years to live.
“As positive as I am, it’s a tough enough diagnosis,” she says. “But again, it’s survival mode. I looked at the two children and I said, ‘I have to survive as long as I can.’ Everything now is a milestone.”
Bernie is receiving ongoing treatment, with a check-up scan every three months. While she suffers from fatigue and pain, she endeavours to make the most of every day.
“If you see me out, I’m Bernie and I’m laughing and I’m joking and I could be out at a table quiz or a football match or Scór.”
Connecting with Yvonne, Sandra and Róisín has been a huge help on her journey, while the local support for the fundraiser was both humbling and heartening.
“Your family puts their arm around you; but I felt my whole community put their arm around me,” says Bernie.
Her advice for anybody with a health concern is to get it checked out.
“Stand up for yourself. Trust your instinct. You know your own body,” she says. “And also, it’s not the end of the world. They’re making breakthroughs [in research] all the time.”
She also reminds readers to be grateful for family, friends and “the simple things in life”.
“Sitting around the dinner table or looking out the window and watching the cows,” she says.
“Before I was running. Farmers are always running. I hadn’t time to do anything; and now I’m taking small steps.”
When Sandra Meehan found a lump in her right breast in December 2019, she wasn’t “that alarmed”
“I just thought it was a hormonal thing,” says Sandra, a primary school teacher at Urbleshanny NS who is married to part-time beef farmer John, and mother to Pádraig (23), twins Cathal and Michael (21) and Catherine (11).
When the lump was still there after Christmas, however, Sandra went to her GP and was referred to the Breast Centre at Beaumont hospital on 31 January for a triple assessment, where she had a biopsy performed on her breast and also on a lymph node.
“I just knew that it was going to be a long week,” she says of waiting for the results. “I was fearful too.”
Called back the following Friday- the day after her 47th birthday- Sandra was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. A mastectomy was recommended, along with the removal of the axillary lymph nodes.
“I didn’t care if they had to take the arm off me, I just wanted to get rid of the cancer,” she recalls. “I had four children at home and that’s all that was going through my mind.”
Following a successful surgery, Sandra began five months of chemotherapy, followed by radiation. COVID meant this was “a lonely time”, while the loss of Sandra’s father-in-law, followed by her father, made it extra challenging.
Little wonder then that in 2021, after finishing her treatment and starting hormone therapy, Sandra “hit the wall”.
“Everything just hit me: the deaths, the sickness, everything,” she says. “I only began to process everything then.”
Sandra says that spending time in nature was “very therapeutic”; and indeed, she often met the McCarra family- who donated the heifer- on her walks. But equally influential was connecting with Bernie, Yvonne and Róisín.
“They truly understand what you are going through and it’s not just the physical, it’s the emotional,” she explains.
The fundraiser especially was a very positive experience.
“The mart that night was just out of this world,” she says. “The farming community really pulls together.”
Sandra advises anyone with a health concern to get it checked out and not to worry that they are “wasting” their doctor’s time. She is still on hormone treatment and has regular check-ups, but is feeling well and has returned to work job-sharing. Her experience has changed her outlook on life, now viewing “troubles and trials” as “stepping stones on life’s journey”.
“I have a greater appreciation of the little things in life,” she says. “After all, simplicity is a gift.”
On 28 October 2021, nurse Róisín McKenna went to work as normal in the COVID test centre. On her tea break, however, everything changed
“I had a knife in my hand and the knife just dropped out of my hand. So, I got another knife and the same thing happened and being a nurse, I thought, ‘That’s not right,’” recalls Róisín.
Suspecting a stroke, Róisín went to Cavan hospital, where she was triaged and spent the night in the emergency department. A CT scan was also arranged and the next day, the consultant called her into his office.
“The consultant told me I had a brain tumour,” says Róisín, who was shocked as she had no symptoms prior to this.
After spending two weeks in Cavan hospital waiting for a bed in Beaumont, Róisín was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, which the neurologist described as an incurable brain tumour. However, surgery was scheduled to remove as much of the tumour as possible, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
Róisín- who is married to Sean and mother to Sinead (27), Bronagh (23) and Joseph (21)- credits her family’s support as well as her faith for coping with the diagnosis and treatment; in particular after suffering a seizure that left her close to death and temporarily without speech or power down her left hand side.
“My consultant in ICU couldn’t believe that I got myself back again. She said, ‘You are some fighter,’” says Róisín, who has a particular devotion to Padre Pio and St Michael the Archangel.
One piece of advice that Róisín took on board was to not go down the rabbit hole of Googling the outlook for her condition, after her consultant reminded her that everybody has their own journey. While she has developed epilepsy, at present, MRIs every three months show that the cancer is stable.
Róisín is very grateful for the care she has received, so when the opportunity arose with the fundraiser, she didn’t think twice; especially as she hopes that some of the money will go towards ongoing research.
“The way I look at it is this mightn’t help me, but there’s generations to come,” she says. “Research is so important.”
While dealing with the realities of an incurable brain tumour, Róisín is grateful for the fact that she has been “given time”.
“There’s so many people who are not given that time,” she says. “Every day is a privilege to be alive.”
Her advice is not to ignore any health complaint that is bothering you; no matter how innocuous.
“People have said to me, if this knife had dropped out of their hand, they wouldn’t have paid any attention to it,” she says. “Something that somebody might think is so stupid to go to a doctor with, go and get it checked out.”
Returning home after a walk in March 2021 Yvonne noticed a lump near her neck
“I just scratched my neck around the neckline of the top of my jacket and I found a lump in my neck. And I thought, ‘Oh God bless us, that shouldn’t be there,’” recalls Yvonne, a practice nurse who is married to Michael and mother to Ella (20), Conor (18) and Darragh (nearly 16).
Having attended her GP, Yvonne was referred to an ENT (ear, nose and throat) consultant in Dublin, where she underwent a biopsy first, followed by the removal of the lump a week later. Two weeks after that- the day before her 46th birthday - Yvonne was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, with treatment scheduled to start two weeks after.
From the beginning, Yvonne decided to be open about her diagnosis; though telling her children was especially tough.
I made this decision: I’m going to get myself out of bed, because I thought I’ll slip into a depression if I stay in the bed
“It was the worst conversation I ever had with anyone in my life,” says Yvonne, despite the reassurance that there was effective treatment available.
Yvonne went on to have six months of aggressive treatment, which left her with “horrendous” nausea and very low energy.
“I made this decision: I’m going to get myself out of bed, because I thought I’ll slip into a depression if I stay in the bed. So, I had to get up every morning and I’d fill the dishwasher and put on a load of washing and the week of chemo, I’d lie down on the couch.”
Treatment finished in October and on her follow-up scan on 1 December, Yvonne was told she was now cancer-free. “That was a great sigh of relief,” she recalls; but she also felt at a loss once treatment ended. Connecting with Bernie, Sandra and Róisín, however, was very helpful.
“We talked about being sick, our treatments, our families,” she lists. “It is about support for each other, companionship.”
During the fundraiser, Yvonne had the opportunity to visit the Crocus Cancer Support Centre. She has since attended for therapies including reflexology and found it very beneficial.
At present, Yvonne is monitored every three months, but is in good health and has returned to work part-time. However, she says self-care is now her priority.
“It wasn’t until something happens you that you realise, ‘God, life was running away; and I was getting lost in it.’”
For more cancer information and support visit www.cancer.ie