'I can't get rid of my cancer but I can live with it, and I do think that miracles can happen'
With remarkable candour and bravery, Bangor mum Diane McCaughan reveals what it's like to be given a life-limiting cancer diagnosis...
In the Oscar-winning film Terms of Endearment, Shirley MacLaine's censorious character is told that her daughter's cancer is incurable, but is advised to treat her, and the situation, as perfectly normal. So when she and her daughter's best friend parade into the hospital room in the very next scene with big fake grins plastered on their faces, the dying patient immediately knows something's up.
I don't think Diane McCaughan will mind me likening that scene to the beaming arrival of her husband and a close friend at the Ulster Hospital last week, because even though fate has given the 44-year-old a rough deal, her sense of humour has remained intact.
The determinedly upbeat visitors landed in to Diane's side room, off ward 15, when we were just finishing up an interview on her stage four cancer, and how it's preventing her from running in this year's Runher Titanic race on Sunday, October 5.
"That's my spiritual adviser there," she says jokingly, indicating the friend with the fixed smile and what, I suspect, was a glitter of fear in her eyes.
Let's face it – it's hard to know what to do with your face in these circumstances. But one thing's for sure: Diane McCaughan doesn't want to see any long ones. Hers isn't, for a start.
"I won't be able to run this year, but I'll be out there cheering the girls on if at all possible," she says, sitting up straight in her bed.
"I don't want to miss the atmosphere – it's really great fun."
Self-deprecating and open, Diane has been a keen runner since 2008. The mother-of-two, from Bangor, started running two years after a mastectomy and a course of chemotherapy, which had left her depleted and hairless.
Eight years on and once again Diane is coping with hair loss. In a strange way, it only accentuates her naturally striking features. She has a good complexion, due, she confides, to double-cleansing her skin with Johnson's Baby Wipes ("they're the softest") followed by a proper cleanser, and to drinking lots of healthy green juice, with cucumber, lemon and ginger.
Apart from the hair loss, the only outward sign of Diane's illness is the irregularity of her bust-line under her hospital gown.
As is known to anyone who has undergone a mastectomy — or has a relative or friend who underwent one — it is more than just the actual breast that is removed.
“It’s the whole area — they took the lymph nodes, too, and that leaves you with a prickly but numb sensation under the arm,” she explains.
“They tested them all but didn’t find any cancer in them. It was stage two cancer — not an aggressive kind — and I was given the all clear.”
How horribly unfair, then, to have passed the all-important five-year mark, only to hear bad news again, three years later.
The nightmare began for Diane, mother to Ben (14) and Emma (12), when she first found a lump in her breast, in January 2006. She was 36.
“Mum had been diagnosed a year-and-a-half before that so I was a bit more vigilant,” she recalls.
“I’d do breast self-examinations, on and off. The doctor wasn’t too worried but referred me for a biopsy, just in case. It was a wee bit traumatic but I knew that in eight out of 10 cases it turns out to be nothing.
“It was about six weeks later that they told me I had a tumour two inches long in my breast. I was shocked but prepared at the same time, if you know what I mean. My husband Sherrard was with me — we just went home and got drunk and had a laugh about it, with my usual black humour.”
She rolls her eyes and laughs at the memory, unwilling to dwell on the darker moments.
“Losing my hair was hard, but I got used to it,” she says. “Mum knitted me hats. The chemo made me nauseous, though; it tires you out and takes its toll on you.”
Less than a year later, Diane’s mother Vivienne (66) was diagnosed with secondary tumours in her spine. Both she and Diane’s father Trevor have since passed on.
“It has been tough,” she admits. “Dad only died two years ago, from complications with another thing; not cancer. The type I have isn’t hereditary — mum’s was different.
“I know diet and lifestyle are factors in breast cancer but it just seems to strike at random.
“I did lead a very unhealthy life as a student. I lived on sausage rolls and stuff out of jars, and rushed about all the time, but I’ve a friend who says she always drunk more than me and it should have been her. Anyway, mum was overweight and I was too. I’m five feet five — I know I look taller in these pyjamas ... Dunnes best.
“I was 12 and a half stone, so I made a conscious effort to lose weight and make my body stronger. I lost three stone by eating smaller portions and running.
“I joined the running club in Bangor and I did the Belfast Relay Marathon and did the glory sprint over the line. It was for all different charities, great fun.”
In a short time Diane dropped to nine-and-a-half stone.
“I felt great. It was brilliant to be able to buy new clothes and feel better about myself, and to be a bit healthier. It was a new way of life — but stuff just happens.”
The second diagnosis, this May, was much harder for Diane to cope with than her first in 2006. She was eight years clear when a blood test showed something suspicious in her liver.
“I get blood tests every year for polycystic kidneys — not ovaries, like Posh, I have to be different!” she says. “Last time one liver test came back slightly elevated. I was worried because the cancer had gone into mum’s liver, so in view of that I had an ultrasound nine days later. I just knew when my GP rang me. It was eight o’clock in the morning at the end of May.
“She said she was sorry, that the scan showed cancer in the liver; it had come back.
“I went into shock. I just sat there, numb and trembling, hot and cold at the same time. It’s hard to explain ...”
Further tests found cancerous cells in the lungs, lymph glands and sternum. Diane was told the cancer was incurable and put on an aggressive round of chemotherapy.
The harshness of the treatment has left her white blood cell count dangerously low, hence her admission into hospital last week with a very high temperature.
She is highly susceptible to infection — I wouldn’t have been allowed near her if I’d had the cold or had been in contact with anyone with it — and is having antibiotics continuously pumped into her bloodstream.
“I got a lecture on trying to do too much — that’s why I’m in here. It’s a very harsh chemo which has brought my white cell down to 0.6 — you couldn’t get much lower, basically. I’ve no appetite and I don’t sleep well but I’m doing all right in here. The medical care is great and the staff are so friendly. And I have my own bathroom, which is a real luxury.”
Ben and Emma have been told the full implications of their mother’s current illness but, like her, have remained stoic.
“Counselling is available but I don’t think I need it at the moment. The kids understand this is different to the last time I was ill, but they’re coping okay because I’m just the usual me,” says Diane.
It has hit her husband Sherrard, a civil servant, harder this time around, she says. “And my sister, Nicola, is worried. She was coming over for a girly weekend which I’ve spoiled for her by landing myself in here. She’s worried because we lost mum. And she’s a
dietician in Glasgow and understands the medical stuff.”
Diane recently qualified as a level two beauty therapist, with the intention of setting up her own salon at home. She’s full of great beauty tips, which I write down, and despite the ravages of her illness and chemotherapy, she’s a good advertisement for the skincare routines she has learned along with waxing, manicure and pedicure techniques.
She still fully intends to practice as a beauty therapist after her last cycle of gruelling chemotherapy (she’s on cycle five of eight) and to provide her services to the Cancer Focus charity, by pampering fellow patients.
“When I first heard it was in my liver, I thought I’d have one year to live,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“That’s what mum had but although my cancer is deemed incurable, it’s manageable; not terminal. You can’t get rid of it but you can live with it. And there’s always new research into it. The oncologist refers to it as a life-limiting condition. Basically my breast cancer cells have migrated to my liver and so on. They thought they’d got it all eight years ago but cancer is a sneaky disease. But I do think miracles can happen. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. I just have a belief — not a religious one, as such. I just have a positive approach to it. People have overcome this before. I’m a firm believer in the mind-body connection. The chemo’s tough but I feel well for the most part. You just get on with it.”
She readily agrees to posing in a Runher T-shirt for a picture for this article; she had hoped this year’s official race T-shirt would be pink “to set off my complexion” and to go with her lost hair, which she had dyed from mid-brown to purple.
“I’d trained to do the 10k but I’m just a wee bit too tired for it this year. I thought I might have been able to walk it but that’s on hold now. I hope to get to go out and watch it, at least.
“I love Runher. It’s a great race. It’s not just for runners — it’s for all women to run, jog or walk it. I couldn’t run the length of myself when I started. The atmosphere is fantastic — you don’t feel you stick out in any way. It’s a good first race to do if you haven’t done one before. I hope to get to go out and watch it, at the very least.
“I would just love to have been doing October's Runher but hopefully I will make it to the next one, with bells on."
How you can take part in Runher
The Belfast Telegraph RunHer Titanic 2014 follows a fantastic new route – see the map on our Facebook page and at www.runher.co.uk.
The 10k run and walk event starts on Titanic Quarter Slipways, makes its way around Titanic Quarter, takes in a road beside Harland & Wolf and – as a super new addition for any event in this area – the route will head into Victoria Park via the new Sam Wallace bridge. The finish will be close to the stunning Titanic building.
Friends and family are welcome – come along and walk or run with the runners, and to enjoy our special Runher Village side activities. This 10k event is for women aged 15 years and above, under UK Athletics and Athletics Northern Ireland rules.
Online entry is open until midnight September 30, and Pack Collection/Event Registration will take place at Pure Running on the days listed below:
- Thursday, October 2, 10am-8pm
- Friday, October 3, 9am-6pm
- Saturday, October 4, 9am-5pm
- Sunday, October 5, Race Day – 9am to 1pm sharp at Runher Village,Titanic Slipway,Titanic Quarter
A PayPal confirmation receipt (as a print out or on phone/tablet) is required to register. Packs include race entry for Belfast Telegraph Runher 10k (walk/jog/run), championship timing, a Runher technical run T-shirt and a Runher goody bag.
Late entry will be possible on the above days (£20) but due to high demand, late entrants will not receive a Runher goody bag and T-shirt. Earlybird prices of £12 and £15 are now sold out, so entry for this event is now £18.
If you want to walk or run our first ever Belfast Telegraph 10k event in the Titanic Quarter – and to be guaranteed an event T-shirt – we recommend online entry as soon as possible. Further information on Facebook, Twitter and via www.belfasttelegraph. co.uk/woman/runher