Having battled cancer and leukaemia, Bandon woman Caroline Warren has retrained as a therapist, specialising in oncology massage, writes CHRIS DUNNE
CAROLINE Warren gets it. She gets that, after cancer, people don’t really want to be reminded of it. They want to forget the cold white walls, the scans, the therapies and all the other procedures.
“After my breast cancer experience, I was given a gift of a massage treatment in a fancy hotel,” says Caroline, aged 43.
“It was not my thing, but I availed of it. I met the young therapist and she ticked all the boxes before I had my massage. Most of the boxes had to do with my cancer. I wanted to forget about it.”
After Caroline’s fight with breast cancer and her own Groundhog Day a year later, when she suffered from leukaemia, she answered a new calling. Caroline re-trained as a massage therapist with specialist training in oncology massage.
“Having battled two forms of cancer myself, I understand that people need a gentle touch, a soothing balm, a human ear,” says Caroline.
“After the aggressive treatments, the unfamiliar faces studying you and the constant pulling and tugging; you need time out from the hamster wheel of treatments, of hospital visits and doctor appointments. I want to provide relief from the nasty side effects that treatments can bring.”
Cancer brought a nasty knock-on effect to the Warren family who live in Bandon. The family were flipped upside down when Caroline was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She was young, healthy and happy.
“It had a knock-on effect. A ripple effect on everyone,” says Caroline.
“Even now, if I hold my hand to my head, my daughter will ask; are you feeling all right Mummy?”
Caroline was feeling a bit off form and suffering from a head cold when she popped in to see her local GP.
“While I was there, I said, by the way, I have a bit of chest pain. The doctor checked me out and said it was probably only a cyst. I was young and healthy.”
But it wasn’t only a cyst.
“I found myself on St Valentine’s Day undergoing a lumpectomy,” says Caroline.
“I just went through the motions. I was never sick, never in hospital. I never even had a broken finger.”
But she had cancer.
“After another surgery in March, it was established that the margins weren’t clear,” say Caroline.
“So the third time I was back in hospital, I opted for a full mastectomy. I just wanted rid of it. I was scared and just fed-up with it.”
Caroline had a mastectomy in April and after a recovery period, she started chemotherapy treatment in June.
“I just wanted to get it done,” says Caroline.
“I finished treatment on November 29.”
Caroline relied on her positive attitude and ‘can do’ approach to fight the disease.
“I didn’t realise the vicious side effects of the treatments,” says Caroline.
“My veins were thinning, so the treatments became more severe. My nails lifted and were horribly dry. My head was sore as the hair follicles released the hair from the roots. I was sitting at the dinner table and ran my hand through my hair and big clumps came out. The dog, our retriever, was under the table. I thought he was shedding!”
Caroline just wanted to get through the ordeal and come out the other side, as unscathed as possible. It wasn’t easy.
“My skin was itchy, my bones were sore. Seemingly your bone density is affected from treatment. I was hot. I was cold. My taste buds were affected. The medical people are trying to save your life, but all those things added up.”
Caroline’s natural good spirits were tested.
“If I met the girls, we chatted away. But there was no craic in me anymore.”
But Caroline picked herself up and dusted herself down.
“If you need help, get help,” says Caroline. “I found ARC House a fantastic support. Our mental health is so important. You must look after it.”
Caroline knew she had her son, Josh now aged 14, and her daughter Erica, now aged 11, to look after. She took steps to get better and regain her strength. She had support from another quarter. Caroline smiles.
“My husband Niall started juicing for me and growing herbs in the garden. I started going for walks. I love the outdoors and the water.”
“Yes, I found it tough. Very tough. Sometimes it felt that I was falling apart. But it was full steam ahead.”
And she got there.
“I was exhausted,” admits Caroline. “I took that summer off. We went to West Cork in our clapped out camper van. I ate, drank and swam in the sea. I was slowly getting back to normal. I am a founder of the Cork Dragons and I love going out on the boat with fellow members. We swap tips and information and have great fun too. How else would you find out the best place to get your eye-brows tattooed? The exercise is really beneficial.”
Just when she thought she was getting her life back; Caroline suffered a cruel blow. In the autumn of 2013, Caroline was out for her usual 5k jog with her friend in Bandon. She was short of breath.
“It was no bother to jog and talk at the same time, but that day, I was under pressure,” recalls Caroline.
“Back home, when I was buttering on the moisturiser like I always did; I noticed black and blue bruising. I thought it might be some form of psoriasis.”
Caroline made the routine visit to her GP.
“She took some bloods and I thought no more about it,” says Caroline who had put all reminders of illness firmly behind her. Then she got the call.
“The hospital wants to see you. There is something wrong with your blood.”
Caroline dismissed any negative thoughts.
“I thought maybe my blood sample had been spilled, or a drop of it had been spilled,” says Caroline.
“I had walked the dog and ran 5k,” she adds. “What could possibly be wrong?”
Then the dreaded words were spoken that make the heart sink.
“Pack a bag just in case.”
Ward 2d on the leukaemia ward became Caroline’s home for the next 100 days.
She was in the same hospital as before, CUH. But less than a year later, she was in a different wing with a different form of cancer.
“The ward comprises of 10 rooms that have filtered air and water,” says Caroline.
“I underwent a bone marrow biopsy which was horrendous. The big long metal needle has to go in deep, very deep. Cancer did not enter my head.
“I said to myself; I have to do this.”
Did she say to herself; why me?
“When the tests came back from the lab confirming that I had no white blood count left and that I had leukaemia, I said ‘leave me alone. I’m done. I’ve done my time’. I worried about the ripple effect on my family. I just wanted to lie there.”
The isolation room was a lonely place to be. The only sound was the constant drip, drip of the medication going into Caroline’s body at regular intervals during the morning and the evening.
“I thought that I’d go bananas,” says Caroline. “It was like being in a capsule. But it was easier being in hospital than at home. There, I’d be looking at cobwebs and the homework. I was home a week for Christmas, but I was very weak and sick.”
In February, Caroline was finished with the isolation situation. She was done with the white walls, the incessant rounds of medications, the unfamiliar faces coming in to review her illness.
She was done hoping to see her loved ones every time the door opened, but yet hoping they wouldn’t see her lying there, defeated.
Caroline wasn’t done fighting. She had won a different battle before.
“On another, routine day, an Indian doctor, Dr. Khan turned up on the ward.
“I asked him; what can I do,” says Caroline.
“He told me to eat fish, kiwi and pineapple to aid my recovery. He helped me.”
Caroline made a decision to help herself.
“I started to stretch my arms and legs in the bed very morning,” says Caroline. “I did a bit of yoga at the end of the bed. At night-time when it was quiet on the ward, I asked the nurses if I could put on my head-phones and walk up and down the corridor. I started getting stronger.”
“What about the drip?
“I pushed that in front of me as I walked,” says Caroline. “There was a back stairs and gradually I climbed up and down that as I got stronger. I was like Rocky! The air was going into my lungs. My white blood count was up.”
Caroline’s health was on the up and up. She was making it to the finishing line.
“Just like Rocky!” says Caroline with a laugh.
Her chemotherapy completed her determination and her belief in herself restored; Caroline decided on a new path.
“I know what it’s like,” says Caroline.
She knows cancer can knock the stuffing out of you.
“That is why I re-trained as massage therapist. Through gentle, light massage, some of the irritable skin conditions and stress levels associated with illness can be alleviated,” says Caroline. As a result, the immune system is boosted and better sleep patterns can be established.”
Her products that she uses for her therapies smell mighty nice too: “Yes, there is one balm that can be used on the face, as a mask or as a butter for your feet. I love it.”
Caroline hasn’t let the grass grow under her feet since she conquered breast cancer and leukaemia.
“Life is good,” says Caroline. “We are getting on with it. You always have a choice, she says. You make the choice to give it your best shot.”
Caroline Warren, Holistic & Cancer Care Massage Therapist is is based at The Touch Therapy Centre. SiRona Clinic. 27, West Douglas Street, Douglas village. See www.touchtherapycentre.ie or for more about Cork Dragons email [email protected]