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'The doctor called me in and looked solemn when he told me that I had cancer... it was hard to take in'

Published 24/10/2016

Smiling through: Anna Lo with her pet dog Jess
Smiling through: Anna Lo with her pet dog Jess
Anna with her sons Conall and Owen
Anna when she was an MLA
Anna during an anti-racism protest in Belfast

In the first of our exclusive extracts from her new book The Place I Call Home out this week, former MLA Anna Lo talks about how she learned to cope with a heartbreaking cancer diagnosis.

Back in 2001, a friend who had not seen me for a while remarked that I had lost a lot of weight. I had not noticed this, but was aware that I had not been sleeping well and had lost my appetite. I went to see my doctor, who discovered that I was suffering from high blood pressure and gave me medication for it.

I put it down to pressure at work and at home and thought it would be temporary. However, the condition persisted.

Soon after I became an MLA in May 2007, after a routine blood test in September in a new health clinic in the area I had moved to, a very experienced GP, Dr Darrah, called me one evening to ask me to see him first thing the next morning.

I was not particularly worried and breezed in, praising him for his efficiency. However, he looked solemn and told me that my white blood-cell count was abnormally high and that he needed to carry out some investigations. I remember asking him, 'What investigations? Do you mean cancer?' 'Yes,' he answered, gravely.

It was hard to take in - I did not seem to have any symptoms of the disease.

A week later, I was at the Special Investigation Unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital for a series of tests.

I had an endoscopy in October, two days before I left for a conference at the University of Notre Dame in the USA, where I was to make a speech about racial equality in Northern Ireland.

On arrival at the campus in Indiana, I lost my voice completely from laryngitis, possibly caused by the procedure. It was lucky that I just about got my voice back, although I was still hoarse, on the last day of the week-long conference, when I was due to speak.

Mind you, I was feeling rather low, under the dark cloud of the investigation, and did not really enjoy the conference, even though I was able to meet the renowned human rights lawyer and former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, at the pre-conference reception and lecture.

Strangely, the results of the endoscopy found no sign of any cancer growth and the investigation was inconclusive.

In the meantime I took a course of iron tablets to alleviate my anaemia. A couple of years later I went through a series of investigations all over again - blood tests were still indicating that my body was fighting against some kind of infection.

However, once again, they failed to find anything. Crucially, I felt well and full of energy. I was not particularly concerned.

It was not until April 2012 that, after some more tests, a liver specialist in the Royal referred me to Dr Damien Finnegan in Belfast City Hospital for a bone-marrow test.

This confirmed that I had basal-cell lymphoma, a low-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which usually progresses slowly over a period of months or years in cells in the bone marrow.

For this type of cancer, evidence suggests that no treatment is as good as treatment for people who are otherwise feeling well. Thus, luckily, I have so far been spared the side effects of chemotherapy. Instead, I am subject to a 'watch and wait' policy, being closely monitored until such time as the illness becomes worse.

I receive regular check-ups from the very gentle and sensitive Dr Finnegan and the wonderful staff at Belfast City Hospital. I know, too, that I have to look after myself and keep healthy.

I suspect the cancer might even have been present back in 2001, when I suddenly lost weight and developed high blood pressure, which is an associated condition of the lymphoma.

I have often wondered whether, if it had been diagnosed then, David (Watson, her first husband, a former Belfast Telegraph journalist) and I would still have separated in June of that year.

The confirmation of cancer in 2012 could not have come at a worse time.

I had just separated from Gavin (her second husband) and literally left the matrimonial home with a suitcase, moving from a luxury four-bedroom house in Jordanstown to a rented semi-detached house in a working-class area of east Belfast.

My house off the Knocknagoney Road was a stone's throw away from a loyalist estate which had flags on nearly every lamp-post in July.

I got some intimidation there. Shortly after I moved in, for example, I put up a side gate to block off access to the back of the property. Someone, for some unknown reason, kicked it open during the night and the bolt had to be reinforced.

Needless to say, incidents like this did not help me as I tried to come to terms with my diagnosis.

I did not tell many people about the cancer. Indeed, as it never seemed imminent that I would be hampered by the illness, there was almost nothing to tell.

I told my family, a couple of close friends and a few people in the Alliance Party; but I omitted to tell my close colleague, Catherine Curran, in my constituency office. It was only a year later that I happened to mention it to her. She burst into tears when she heard the news.

There was no point in wallowing in self-pity.

I had to get on with getting over the marriage break-up and fulfilling my role in the Assembly.

Perhaps my tough Chinese roots kept me going. I was thankful that I had a busy, full-time job that absorbed all my time and focus.

Belfast Telegraph

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