An in­domitable spirit

Los­ing her hair was hard, but Emma Cas­sidy’s pos­i­tive take on can­cer in­cluded a pre-chemo party, writes Olivia Kelle­her

Irish Examiner - - Life / Style -

SOME peo­ple are just born with an in­domitable spirit that sees them sur­vive and even thrive amid the chaos that life can throw at us. Emma Cas­sidy is one of those born survivors.

Emma, 30, from Ra­heny in Dublin was work­ing as a PE and science teacher in a lo­cal sec­ondary school in April this year when she started to ex­pe­ri­ence fa­tigue.

Emma is proac­tive about her health, hav­ing had a mi­nor en­counter with skin can­cer a few years ago. She de­cided to go to her GP for a con­sul­ta­tion.

“He was bril­liant. He put me on B12 in­jec­tions and I went back and I said that I felt no dif­fer­ent. I was still wrecked. I felt like my skin and hair was dif­fer­ent and things were break­ing down on me.

“I was still ex­er­cis­ing and eat­ing well but I couldn’t beat it. My blood tests were fine and my thy­roid was checked. Two years pre­vi­ously I had skin can­cer re­moved from un­der my arm pit so my doc­tor sent me back to hospi­tal as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure.”

Emma went to Beau­mont Hospi­tal as a pub­lic pa­tient and found the speed and at­ten­tion of care to be sec­ond to none.

Doc­tors found a lump in her right breast in “20 sec­onds” and she was sent for an ul­tra­sound. A nurse told her she wouldn’t nor­mally send a pa­tient aged un­der 35 for a mam­mo­gram. How­ever, she re­quested that Emma un­dergo the ex­am­i­na­tion.

“Not one alarm bell went off. I was there from 8.30am to 5.30pm but I was still a bit naïve. Then they told me that they had three ar­eas that they wanted to take biop­sies from. I still wasn’t click­ing,” she said.

“At one point my mother was in an an­other wait­ing area of the hospi­tal and they said ‘do you want your mother to come down with you?’ And I said to my Mum, ‘are they be­ing a lit­tle bit too nice?’ and we laughed.”

Emma said it didn’t re­ally dawn on her that she had can­cer as sta­tis­tics for the in­ci­dence of the dis­ease in women her age are rel­a­tively low.

She was get­ting her hair done for a wed­ding a week later when she got a call to say that the top con­sul­tant on­site wanted to see her a few days later.

Emma said she still “ate and drank and en­joyed the wed­ding” and then went to the con­sul­tant ex­pect­ing “not so good” news.

“When I was told I had can­cer in three ar­eas I could see the colour drain from my mother’s face. But I was told it was very fix­able. I was still so naïve about it.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it when I was told I was fac­ing into a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy. I felt my­self panic. But then I said, ‘tell me what to do’ and I knew that if I did what they told me I would be fine. So I con­cen­trated on that.”

Emma says she felt “punched in the face” and cried for about three min­utes. Then she went into teacher mode, fig­ur­ing out how she was go­ing to ap­proach her treat­ment.

Emma was con­scious of the fact that she had very lit­tle in the way of peer feed­back, so she de­cided to set up an In­sta­gram page to reach out to other young women with can­cer.

“I hadn’t en­coun­tered any­body in my im­me­di­ate cir­cle with can­cer. I wanted to en­cour­age girls in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

“I also wanted to doc­u­ment my jour­ney and to have some­thing I could look back on when this is all over. I wanted some­thing pos­i­tive to come of it. I have re­ceived loads of mes­sages. It’s amaz­ing.”

Emma un­der­went a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy and is now go­ing for reg­u­lar chemo­ther­apy ses­sions. She will have re­con­struc­tive surgery at a later date.

THE week­end be­fore her chemo started she de­cided to have a big party at her home, at­tended by her work col­leagues and dozens of friends. “Mum couldn’t be­lieve it when I said I wanted a party. I wouldn’t be some­one who sits around cry­ing. I am quite good in bad sit­u­a­tions. I process things fairly quickly.

“I think peo­ple were wait­ing for me to have a men­tal break­down but the cards have been dealt a cer­tain way and I think it is all about how you re­act to it. If I can raise aware­ness along the way, well that’s great.” Emma says her pre-chemo party was like a “mini fes­ti­val” with her friends hir­ing bouncy cas­tles and erect­ing an out­side bar.

All her pals got on a What­sApp group to or­gan­ise it. Touch­ingly, teach­ers at her school did a whip around to pay for her wig, know­ing she was go­ing to lose her hair.

Be­ing a self-con­fessed “girly girl” Emma says los­ing her hair was a big wrench.

But she dyed it pink first in a nod to breast can­cer aware­ness. She had one last curly blow dry and said good­bye to her long locks.

“The hair was hard, I have to say. I even had a curly blow done be­fore my mas­tec­tomy and then be­fore chemo.

“To be hon­est I was wor­ried the can­cer was go­ing to change my per­son­al­ity but it hasn’t. I am look­ing for­ward to go­ing back to work even­tu­ally and get­ting back to nor­mal. Mind you the hair sa­lons will close down in the mean­time!”

Emma’s posts can be viewed at http:// deskgram.org/cas­sos­nugget­sofwis­dom

Hunger can in­ter­fere with our con­cen­tra­tion and make us more likely to snap at peo­ple around us, so why is that? There are a num­ber of con­tribut­ing fac­tors but the pri­mary rea­son comes down to brain food.

We break down the food we eat into smaller com­po­nents that can fuel the body. One such com­po­nent is the sim­ple su­gar, glu­cose, the brain’s pri­mary fuel. If we leave too much of a gap between meals then we risk our blood glu­cose lev­els drop­ping. This af­fects peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ways; for some it trig­gers a strong re­sponse in the brain that makes us hangry. The brain needs fuel to reg­u­late and con­trol emo­tions, par­tic­u­larly anger.

It is un­der­stand­able that we get ir­ri­ta­ble when the brain’s main food runs into short sup­ply. From an evo­lu­tion­ary stand­point this is a threat to our sur­vival. If we need food, and need it now, then it is not a time to be timid. But the re­ac­tion is not just phys­i­o­log­i­cal, it can be neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal too.

‘I wanted to doc­u­ment my jour­ney and to have some­thing I could look back on when this is all over. I wanted some­thing pos­i­tive to come of it.

A drop in blood glu­cose lev­els can trig­ger the re­lease of cer­tain hor­mones that con­trol our ap­petite; these in­clude cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line. These two hor­mones have other func­tions as well, par­tic­u­larly in elic­it­ing the fight or flight mech­a­nism in re­sponse to stress and anx­i­ety. Anger is of­ten a side ef­fect ex­pressed in sit­u­a­tions where the body feels un­der stress.

Main: Emma Cas­sidy on In­sta­gram:“I fi­nally left the house, woohoo!! Had such a lovely week­end, meet­ing friends, go­ing to the park and I met a puppy. ” Top right: Emma with her mum Right: Emma in her liv­ing room with Craig O’Hara.

A drop in glu­cose lev­els in the blood can make some peo­ple ‘hangry’.

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