Double Major Grad- Colette Ryan
Name: Colette Ryan
Age at Enrollment: 31 and 32
Majors: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (Breast) and Papillary Cancer (Thyroid)
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? I felt like I was at my fittest and healthiest so it didn’t make sense that I had been feeling overly tired and anxious in the months leading to my diagnosis. I had put this down to pressures at work, moving house and some other personal things going on at the time.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? I found a lump in my armpit one night and I felt concerned over this. It was strange because only 6 weeks before I had said to myself that I should have a breast check done while I was at my check up for my pap smear. I guess I had a feeling that something was wrong.
Courses completed: I first had dose dense ACT chemo over 4 months, during which I had monthly injections of zoladex, followed by lumpectomy and full axillary node clearance, and 30 sessions of radiotherapy for the breast cancer. I also had total thyroidectomy and neck dissection, followed by Radioactive Iodine Treatment. I’m now on hormone therapy for the next ten years. My treatments for the two different cancers overlapped at times and it was a bit of a juggling act when it came to handling all of the different consultants appointments!! I also had to be treated for neutropenic sepsis, caused by a staph infection in my port and had to receive calcium infusions post thyroidectomy because of hypoparathyroidism.
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? I was living in Canada when I was diagnosed. I was just setting myself up to live there long term and it was heartbreaking for me to leave the friends, that now feel like family, that I had made there. I knew that I had to go home for my treatment and needed to be with family, for their sake as much as mine. Having to pack up my life and leave for something that was so unsure was terrifying. But knowing that I had the support of family and friends and home, as well as those scattered around the world, helped me through.
The two weeks I spent in hospital because of the calcium issues were quite hard too, but luckily I had a friend that worked in the hospital that would come visit sometimes. My sister surprised me with my nephews in the canteen too which really lifted my spirits. And my cousin called too with her girls. Kids are great because they are full of love and questions and it in some ways helps you understand by explaining things in simpler terms to them.
What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed? What advice would you tell them to ignore? Take each day as it comes. Rest when you need to. Listen to your body. So many people have opinions about everything, try not to let them tell you how to live your life, other than the professionals of course. Nobody can tell you how you should feel. Take help when you need it.
How did your family and friends respond? Being so far from home when I was diagnosed was difficult for my family. It was heartbreaking to phone my parents and sisters to tell them what was happening. They were so supportive and put in motion plans for me coming home. I then had to meet up with my friends and tell them, not only that I had to leave but that I was going home for treatment for breast cancer. And when I got home telling people why I was back so suddenly was hard. It hurt every time I told someone. It was 6 months later that I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and that was probably more shocking. And it felt like starting all over again with the heart ache. Because I was in the middle of my treatment, and everything was so confusing, I didn't tell people straight away about the second diagnosis, it was hard to understand how there were two cancers invading my body at the same time.
Have you created any meaning out of this experience? If so, what was it/how did you do it? I haven’t created any meaning out of this experience, cause there is no meaning to the pain and suffering caused by cancer and its treatments, but I do know that life is far more stressful for people than it should be.
How did/do you find joy during this experience? I have young nephews that I missed while I was living abroad. And they were , and are, so good to me. Their hugs would always get you through a bad day.
Since your diagnosis, what new belief, habit or behavior has most improved your quality of life? I walk away from the negative as much as I can, if someone is full of negative conversation I change the subject. I try to stay away from those that cause me anxiety or stress. If i’m running late, then so be it, rushing won’t get me there safer.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your life? If so, what was it? I am way tougher than I could ever have imagined. Strangely, I have a new found confidence. Maybe it is an appreciation, maybe it's knowing how much I've gone through, or maybe it's seeing the good in things and blocking out the bad, where possible.
If you could write anything you wanted on a billboard in NYC’s Times Square that would reach millions of people, what would it read? Always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful than you’d ever imagined.