Living with a brain tumour

Clare Garvey was stopped by a guard as she drove to Oughterard around 8.45am one morning at the end of July 2011.

The 51-year-old had just finished night duty at the nursing home in which she worked in Moycullen and was going to meet her friend.

The guard was a “lovely chap” in his late thirties and told her the motorist behind her was concerned that she was veering towards the white line.

“‘It’s probably pure tiredness,’ I told him,” recalls Clare, before she went on to explain to him that she had just finished work. “Then I smiled and said ‘I hope she doesn’t think I’m drinking.’”

Little did the nurse who lived in Salthill realise that the female motorist who had contacted the Gardai had in fact saved her life.

She went on to meet her friend, Helena, for just five minutes and then decided to go back to her brother’s house in Moycullen for a rest. She was feeling fine.

Twenty-four hours later she felt “an awful weight” in her head and began to get sick. She went -to her doctor in Barna who referred her to the Bon Secours hospital in Renmore for an MRI scan.

Afterwards, the hospital consultant told her there was something behind her right ear, it measured four centimetres but might only be an abscess. However, within hours she was taken by ambulance to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin and had surgery the following morning to remove a brain tumour.

“I had had no symptoms, no migraines,” recalls Clare who now lives in Roscommon but continues to have treatment and attend brain tumour support group meetings in Galway. “I was very health conscious. I had upped my exercise levels before this and was at peak fitness. I didn’t smoke or drink. I had never felt so good.”

Something in my head

When she was diagnosed two of her daughters were doing their Leaving Certificate, another was in Switzerland and heading into her final year at college, her husband Martin had changed jobs and they were doing work on their house.

“Because I am a nurse I was worried when I heard first of all, that there was something in my head, behind my ear. After being diagnosed concerns about the family took over. When your children are doing the Leaving Cert you would like to be at home as it’s their most stressful time and don’t all of us need support?”

She was deeply touched by the kindness of the staff of Salerno, the Salthill secondary school her children attended, especially deputy principal Margie Connolly and principal Sr Gerarda.

“I will never forget their words. They said ‘Will you promise you won’t worry about the girls? We will look after them as if they were our own.’”

The fact that her diagnosis and surgery happened so quickly meant she had little time to think.

“I was very lucky. Nothing ever made me negative. My thought was if there is something there it has to come out. Something else kicks in too and you find reserves in your body to get you through.”

Her surgery went very well and she is full of praise for Dr Caitriona Waters, her GP, Dr Deirdre Mullane, her consultant at the Bon Secours Hospital and Mr Stephen Young, her consultant neurosurgeon at Beaumont Hospital who was a “lovely man” and “excellent”.

“It’s a bit daunting at first when they say to you that all they have to go on is a black and white photo from an MRI scan,” she says. “All the tumour was taken away and I made a good recovery. Then radiotherapy was to start.”

But when the consultant came to give her the histology results she sensed something was wrong.

He said everything had gone well but the tumour was malignant. “It was quite a shock,” recalls the community nurse and midwife who is originally from Sligo. “It was aggressive and a grade four.”

She returned to University Hospital Galway for radiotherapy treatment which continued from July to October. “We were lucky that we were living in Salthill so it was convenient for us. I had the treatment for 10 minutes a day from Monday to Friday. I lost my hair but that wasn’t really an issue for me, not overall. I was more concerned that the tumour would be out of my head. I’m very aware it’s a serious condition and your life is different after this.”

Tumour had regrown

After the radiotherapy she had another MRI scan and was scheduled to begin chemotherapy before Christmas 2011. However, the scan indicated the tumour had regrown so Clare had further surgery at Beaumont Hospital in early Febuary 2012.

“That went fine. Again, everything happened so fast that I had not time to think and I knew there was a plan of action.”

She learned a lot from other people who had experienced “tough” times, she says. “A huge part of all this, in people’s recovery, are family and friends and the fantastic people you meet. I remember meeting a lovely man in his seventies from Mayo. His wife had gone in for chemo and he said he had his own trauma years ago when his two sons were killed in a car accident. I asked him how he was now. He said, of course, he and his wife were sad and added that their lives have always been very different from that moment.”

But what struck Clare most about him was his lack of bitterness, especially the way he had not allowed suffering to darken his view of life. He and people like him have been her inspiration, she says.

Supporting people with brain tumours

The western brain tumour support group was set up in Galway in November 2006. It provides support for people diagnosed with a brain tumour and those affected by the diagnosis. The group meets on the second Thursday of each month at the Cancer Care West centre on Seamus Quirke Road at 7.30pm.

About 35 people attend the meetings which are informal and provide patients, family and friends with an opportunity to share “experiences, joys and fears of various treatments and symptoms along with day to day living,” says Anne Buckley, the chairperson of the western brain tumour support group. The meeting also enables families to talk to others about changes in family roles or financial concerns. About 80 per cent of people who attend are under 50 years.

She outlines that connecting with others in similar circumstances, whether patient or family members, can reduce feelings of isolation and fear of the unknown and enhance coping skills, which in turn reduces anxiety.

The group provides an ongoing support and outreach service in the west through telephone contact and home visits for those unable to attend meetings.

It is estimated that between 350 and 420 people in Ireland develop brain tumours each year. They can occur at any age. However, unlike tumours in other parts of the body, little is known about the cause of primary brain tumours.

“There are various types of brain tumours which develop from different types of cells in the brain,” explains Ms Buckley, a brain tumour survivor. “Although brain tumours can be classified as benign or malignant, they are usually classified according to grade on a scale of one to four. Grade one to two being low grade tumours and grades three to four being high grade. The higher the grade, the more aggressive the tumour tends to be and the faster it tends to grow.

“As it grows it can damage nearby tissue. Symptoms may vary from case to case, depending on which part of the brain is affected and the size of the affected area.

“One or more of the following symptoms may develop - headache, visual problems, speech difficulties, memory loss, weakness/paralasis, vomiting, seizures or personality changes.”

Treatments, which can include surgery, chemotherapy and medication, depend on various factors, eg, the type and grade of the tumour, its location and the patient’s general health.

For further information on the support group

contact Ann Buckley

at (087 ) 7834826.

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