Mairéad O’Sullivan has always been a “glass half-full” kind of person. “And there’s a jug near it to top it up,” she adds, with a smile.
Yet perhaps the most extraordinary example of this was when Mairéad was told in 2017 that not only had her cancer returned – 10 years after her first diagnosis – but that at stage four it could be treated but not cured.
“The doctor said: ‘You’ll be going on herceptin, and you’ll be staying on herceptin,” recalls the mother-of-three. “And I said: ‘I hope there’s plenty of herceptin.’”
Four and a half years on, Mairéad is grateful for the immunotherapy treatment that is allowing her to live with cancer, having once feared that she would not survive to see her three small boys grow up.
Raised on a dairy and pig farm near Rathmore, Co Kerry, Mairéad originally studied hotel management and worked in hospitality.
After marrying west Cork sheep and suckler farmer Neil in 1999, she switched careers to work as a home-help co-ordinator with the HSE while raising sons Neil, Diarmuid and Gavin, in Adrigole on the Beara peninsula.
Between family, farm and work commitments, it didn’t seem all that strange that during the summer of 2007, Mairéad – then 37 – felt more tired than usual.
That September, however, she began to experience darts of pain that would shoot from the tip of her shoulder towards her left breast.
“As soon as I realised that the pain was there, it would go,” she recalls; but after getting another “dart” while driving home from work one evening in early October, she pulled her car in to the side of the road to ring the GP to make an appointment for the following Thursday.
I always had this phrase: ‘There but for the grace of God go I'. I have a faith and I suppose I would always pray and it’s something I would have always said
That Monday, she was in the shower when she felt a lump in her breast the size of a “tennis ball”, but when she searched for it again she could not find it.
Reporting her symptoms to the GP, she was referred to the breast clinic in Cork University Hospital (CUH). Even then, she said she was optimistic that there was nothing to worry about.
“I was one of these people: ‘Nine out of 10 of these things are nothing; and I’m going to be one of the nine out of 10,’” she recalls telling herself.
It was only when her doctor in CUH, Ms Norma Relihan, scheduled Mairéad to come back for a needle biopsy that the alarm bells began to ring, with tests later revealing that the lump in her breast measured 8cm.
Yet even though the results came back that it was pre-cancerous, Ms Relihan was not satisfied that there was not something more sinister going on, and a mastectomy was scheduled for 22 November 2007.
Unfortunately, it turned out that Mairéad actually had stage three cancer. Her concern, however, was not for herself, but for her boys.
“Neil would have just turned seven, Diarmuid would have been five going on six for that December and Gavin was three and a half,” she says, her voice crackling with emotion.
“I always had this phrase: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ I have a faith and I suppose I would always pray and it’s something I would have always said.
“So you know, when we got the news it was cancerous, I said: ‘There now with the grace of God go I.’ That was my one thing, my prayer always … that I would live to see the boys grow up.”
A poignant reminder of this time is a photograph that Mairéad still keeps on display of the three boys visiting Santa in the community hall that December. She was in hospital, so her two sisters brought them along.
“It always keeps in my mind how young they were,” says Mairéad, explaining that in the early days of her journey, her wish was that she would live to see all three of the boys make their communion.
Following further surgery to remove lymph nodes, Mairéad embarked on six months of chemotherapy, which took its toll. However, she also remembers the lighter moments of her journey, laughing as she recalls when one of the boys asked the teacher in school to add a special intention at morning prayers.
“‘Say a prayer for mom, who went bald over the weekend,’” she smiles, referring of course to when she first lost her hair.
Following chemotherapy, Mairéad began radiotherapy and continued to attend hospital every three weeks until April 2009. Neil’s holy communion that May was a huge landmark in her journey, as was going back to work later that summer.
While the return to normality was welcome, however, she explains that it did take time to readjust to life after treatment.
“You’re very closeted when you’re in the treatment and you go from appointment to appointment and next thing you walk out that door,” she says. “You’re very much: ‘Who’s going to mind me now?’”
As Mairéad’s cancer was hormone positive, she was put on a drug called Tamoxifen for 10 years, while also continuing to attend for yearly mammograms.
Life went on, but in the summer of 2017 she started to have problems with her shoulder again, which at times left her “in agony”.
“So much so that when I went to catch the teapot, I couldn’t catch it with my left hand,” she recalls of one such episode.
Doctors seemed to think that Mairéad had a problem with her neck, and later that it might be a trapped nerve, prescribing pain relief and physiotherapy.
That November, Mairéad celebrated 10 years since being first diagnosed with cancer but with her shoulder leaving her in tears at times, her former doctor, Ms Relihan, scheduled her for an MRI on 19 December that year.
Sadly, the news was not good: Mairéad’s cancer had returned and was now at stage four (metastatic), meaning essentially that while it can be treated, currently there is no cure.
But – as referenced at the beginning of the article – from the start, Mairéad’s focus was on the treatment available that would help her to live; not on how unfair it was that her cancer had returned, or how much or how little time she might have left.
We only have today and nobody knows what tomorrow will throw at us. That’s the way I look at life
And, of course, her boys. “My one prayer was in 2007: ‘Let me see them grow up as much as I can,” she says, her voice once again trembling.
“I’d always said, if and when my cancer came back, I’d be grateful for what I got,” she continues, recalling how after her first diagnosis, she did not believe she would live to see her youngest son, Gavin, make his first holy communion.
“And [this year] he’s doing the Leaving Cert and that’s the way I look at it, I’m very grateful for that.”
Every three weeks, Mairéad makes the 200km plus journey from Adrigole to the Dunmanway day unit in CUH for her treatment. Of course, it takes its toll – she experiences fatigue and is also on a lot of pain relief medication.
However, she says that the staff there have become part of her extended family, and that in a funny way, it’s almost become part of her social life.
“Especially since COVID,” she smiles. “I get dressed up. I could go in with the dress and the sandals and everything!”
Religious faith and the practice of gratitude are very important to Mairéad. On her social media, she regularly shares the little things that give her a lift, like a load of washing drying on the line in the sunshine.
“It’s not the massive things, it’s getting one job done, having that cup of tea, taking that rest,” she explains. “It’s knowing that, yes, there are some days I need to go on the couch, there are more days that I don’t have to and it’s to be grateful for the couch and the cushion and the throw the day that you need it.”
She stresses that every cancer journey is different. For instance, two good friends who were diagnosed at the same time as her have fortunately not had any recurrence.
On the other side, she knows of other people who did not get the time she has had, which is a constant reminder to make the most of every moment.
“We only have today and nobody knows what tomorrow will throw at us. That’s the way I look at life, and if there’s a bad day, it only lasts 24 hours and it usually never lasts that long. You have to break it down. So that’s my resilience,” she says.
Of course, Mairéad acknowledges, she would love to have “endless possibilities”, but that, for now, she is grateful to be able to enjoy today and hopes for lots more tomorrows with her husband and three boys.
“I still want to see more of their stories unfold,” she smiles.
Rise is a regular series that explores personal resilience in challenging circumstances, through real life stories. You can find previous articles in the series online at