Today, inspirational teenager Dónal Walsh will be buried. This is an essay he wrote about how he dealt with his two crushing cancer diagnoses
THE first time they told me I was at home, I was on the phone to my friend in our living room. It was Sept 11, 2008, when my mom came in. She didn’t have to say anything, I knew straight away what had happened. The test results were bad, and the tumour was malignant. I hung up the phone without saying anything. I felt like throwing it at the wall. But to be honest I didn’t know what it meant.
I was 12 and all I cared about was playing sport. I knew it was bad but I didn’t understand the severity of it. I had cancer, a tumour that had grown on my right femur just above my knee, and little did I know it would destroy parts of my life that I had never planned on letting go of.
The first step was chemo. I thought at the time it would be one step, but turned out to be 26 chemo sessions throughout the year. That week we were overloaded with information about my treatment, my outcome, and me. My outcome looked good but it wouldn’t be easy, in fact they said it’s one of the hardest things for an adult to overcome and near impossible for a child. At the time I was negative. I was angry, upset, and felt like it was impossible. But I had to remember she said “near impossible”.
I was different. I was that person you stop your kids from staring at. I was sick
The first chemotherapy started on Sept 18, 2008.
Before that my leg was in so much pain. I had gone weeks with only hours of sleep and countless different prescription medications, but nothing would stop it. In a way I’m glad the painkillers didn’t work, if they had I wouldn’t have said anything. It would have disappeared and spread and I might not have had the same outcome I was given.
Even to this day I refuse painkillers for any pain, not because I’m stupid but because I’m afraid. I’m afraid if I cover it up that it could be serious and by the time I realise it, it might be too late. So I’m willing to suffer so much pain that I will eventually get a doctor. I don’t think that’s stupid. I think it’s healthy.
Amazingly when they started the chemo, the pain stopped. A good sign, it was working. Doxorubicin, Cisplatin, and Methotrexate were my chemotherapies. Hey they’re my best friends and my worst enemies. They would save my life and nearly kill me but I was doing it. I wanted to live, to play for Munster, to travel the world, to raise children, and die when I’m 100, not 12.
I had a lot of bad days over the next few weeks. I was going downhill fast and everyone knew it. Everyone except me. I couldn’t see what was happening to me, I would walk into the hospital for my chemo, take my bed next to a baby, I’d see two adults asleep on the floor and I’d take my vomiting bowl and pee jar for the week. Then I’d sleep. I shut it out. I didn’t want to be like the three-year-olds who would walk around with smiles and buckets of toys. I wanted to be Dónal. But when you walk in there you lose everything; your pride, your dignity, and once they start the chemo, you lose your body. In a way the smaller children have an easier path. They won’t remember this. But it’s harder for their parents, because they have to watch this happen to their children and they know it’s not normal.
Normality changes too. I had trouble struggling to figure out what it was for me. I’d wake up and get my injection, I’d get sick a couple of times a day, I’d wander around the house for the day waiting for school to finish and maybe a few friends would come over, they didn’t treat me the same. I was different. I was that person you stop your kids from staring at. I was sick.
The pain I felt after surgery was the worst I ever encountered and it wasn’t over. I had to learn how to walk again
In early November, my uncle took me out for a drive. And I wasn’t eating again. I didn’t eat after chemo. I couldn’t, I didn’t have an appetite at all and anything I did eat wouldn’t be long in my stomach before it was in the vomiting bowl. When we came home I was told to sit down. They told me that I would need surgery and it was more complicated than they thought. It was too close to my knee for bone salvage surgery, so they would need to remove half my femur, all my knee, and a small part of my tibia and replace it with prosthetics. I knew this meant that sport was gone. My dreams, the only thing I had wanted was gone, in a matter of inches. I was devastated. I couldn’t talk to anyone for days.
There were worse days to come. On my last chemo session before Christmas, around Dec 18, my parents went for lunch and I was alone in the bed. I was trying to sleep but there was a baby next to me who was crying, then he stopped. I heard a chair move suddenly and his mother began screaming, the crash alarm went off and the crash cart was brought in, at this stage his mother was shouting at him.
The nurses were shouting at each other, I was praying. He didn’t make it, my parents weren’t allowed into the room for an hour. I was scared, and I don’t know why, but I was angry. That day was one of the worst of my life. To witness a child die, and his parents’ breakdown. I don’t like to talk about it because I still get scared and angry thinking about it.
My operation in January was the toughest thing I ever had to do. I was weak, I lost 23kg and I was still sick. I didn’t realise how tough it was going to be until I woke up. It was nine and a half hours long, I woke up with two tubes on my leg, an epidural, six cannulas, and a catheter. It wasn’t going to be easy, after two nights in intensive care I was moved to the children’s ward. After four days of just lying down unable to move I eventually ate something. Then the head nurse came in early and spoke with my mom. They thought I was asleep. She said she was going to remove the tubes and the less I knew the better. I wish I was asleep. She asked could she look at my back, where the epidural was. I told her I knew what was happening and she wasn’t happy. She pulled it out quickly, I felt it slither out and then a sharp pain pierced my spine, I screamed. I begged her to go slow for the drainage tubes, but she said it would be easier if it was quick. One went and I felt it tear out. Straight away she took the second one and it felt as bad as the first one. There was blood on the curtains from the speed she went at.
“Now for the catheter,” she said. I was petrified at this stage, she began to disconnect it and then I felt a massive balloon pop in my bladder, I asked how would the balloon come out. “Like this,” she said and I could see her dragging it, as it burned me. “That wasn’t too bad, was it?” she said. The pain I felt ... was the worst I ever encountered and it wasn’t over, I had three weeks of rehabilitation left because I had to learn how to walk again. And it started that same day.
They said I’d be off crutches in six months, I handed back my crutches after six weeks
My physio came around at 11am and I sat out for the first time. “We might get you down to the gym tomorrow” she said. “Tomorrow? Can we not start today?” She was shocked but happy. I was in the gym by 3pm. In the gym there were two bars that are waist high and run about 10m, they are used to support people who are learning to walk again. I looked at them and asked “will I be doing them?” She said yes, about three times a day. I said to myself I would be doing them six times. I managed five and was disappointed. The next day I did them eight times.
While I was in the gym the other physios would tell patients how I had four times more metal in my leg than anyone else in the hospital, that I didn’t move for four days, and how I was three weeks ahead of where I should be for walking.
When I was in there all I cared about was getting out, if that meant going through all that pain, I would do it, I still do. If I want something, I go get it. I don’t wait around for something to happen. I make it happen, maybe that’s why I do it. They said I’d be off crutches in six months, I handed back my crutches after a six week check-up.
I still had six months of chemo. Because along with removing my knee it would mean that the cancer wouldn’t come back, and I was willing to do that. But the chemo was the thing that hit me hard. I might faint instead of sleep and I was losing weight fast. On Mar 10, I reached my lowest ever, weighing only four and a half stone. I hadn’t eaten for 28 days. My mom brought me to Kerry General Hospital.
From there they brought me to Crumlin by ambulance. I was given a nasal-gastro tube and I was fed through that. It was a tube that went through my nose and ran all the way down to my stomach through my throat. I had failed myself and I was devastated.
In the end it turned out that the tube was a good thing. It gave me energy and even began to eat a little again. On Jun 1, 2009, I walked out of St John’s ward Crumlin a happy man; I was finished my last Methatrexate, I’d had my last chemo session and I promised I would never return as a patient.
Over the next few years I collected more than €10,000 for the ward. They looked after me and I promised myself that I was going to do everything I could to look after them.
The year I finished they were looking for money to renovate the ward, for the first time since the 1970s, so I had to help. They needed it.
My heart sank. My word fell apart again. I wanted to run. I fell to my knees in tears. I couldn’t handle it
I had to go for check-ups every four months and on Feb 15, 2012, I went up for one with my dad. We went for a chest X-ray and we took it up to my doctor. All was normal, until he demanded that the isotope unit be opened so I could have a CT scan of my chest.
I took no notice. I guess I shut it out. We waited for him in a room with yellow paint on the walls and chairs that ran around the room. There was a bin next to me and tissues on the table.
He came in and told us I had a tumour in my lung. It was back. My heart sank. My word fell apart again. I was angry — this was too much. I stood up and kicked the bin. I wanted to run. I fell to my knees in tears. I couldn’t handle it.
He said I would be going for surgery the week after, on the 25th. I wasn’t happy to be doing this all again. They weren’t able to tell if I would need chemo until after the surgery, I wasn’t happy with that.
I spent the week with my friends. It’s hard to call some of them friends —when they spend every day with you, they become family.
In ways I’m happy I had cancer because I was able to tell who my true friends are and well, the rest left or were only hanging around for the attention. I don’t like attention seekers. I once came across a person who thought he could lie to everyone and say he had cancer. He was lucky I didn’t hit him. I wanted to and still do. To go through what I went through and see what I saw is horrific, and when someone thinks they can just say that for attention... it’s disgusting.
I broke down the morning of my operation. I didn’t want to do it because it meant I would be going back to that life, the life I swore I left behind, the life I was promised I wouldn’t see again. They tried to sedate me but I refused because taking that medicine would be like accepting that it was real and I couldn’t do that.
Eventually I was sedated and that was it. The next thing I remember was waking up in the intensive care unit with my mom next to me. She was crying. I vaguely remember it, but I asked her “Did everything go OK?”
She wiped her eyes, “Yeah, everything’s OK,” she said unconvincingly.
“Why are you...” then it hit me, “I need chemo, don’t I?”
She began to cry again. “Yes,” she said.
I didn’t know what to do, my mom never cries in front of me. I knew there was more. I wanted to hold her but I couldn’t move. I had to show her I was OK.
“Why are you crying?” I asked in the hope she’d think I was OK.
“I didn’t want you to see me like this,” she said, still crying.
“I’m OK mom. I’ll be fine. Don’t cry. I can do it again,” I lied.
The next day I realised I was back to where I was three years ago: in intensive care with an epidural, two drainage tubes in my lung, countless cannulas, a catheter, and a pain tube in my throat. I was going to march through this. I was getting out of here and going home before the chemo. That’s all I wanted. I met with my surgeon that day. It turned out the tumour was three times the size they thought it was. It was 12cm. They had to remove half my lung with it.
I was told to do some crazy things but in the end I chose to be Dónal. I was going to have to leave him behind and I wanted to appreciate everything he had as a normal teenager
It was unreal the support I was getting. I suppose the first time everyone was like me — new to it all. But this time, they knew what I would look like and the pain I was going through. I don’t take it seriously when I’m at home, because if I do my friends will, and I don’t want them to worry about me. Cancer has already ruined my life, so I’m not going to let itdo anything to my friends. So at home, I’m Dónal, but in hospital I am sick and that’s the way it’s going to stay.
The rehabilitation would be slower this time. They took out most of my tubes by Tuesday. But this time I made sure I saw the pain management nurse before I let them near my catheter or drainage tubes. The rest were simple. I was still left with one drainage tube for the next few days. But I got started on the rehab. This time she said we were going to walk two doors down the corridor, a space of 10m. It wasn’t long enough, half the corridor — 30m —would do me. I was leaving Friday and to do that the doctors had to see I was OK. I left Friday.
I had 10 days at home and I had to decide if I was going to do the chemo or not. If I did I was told it would be very tough and they don’t know how long it will go on for. If I didn’t do it, it would come back and I wouldn’t survive.
For those 10 days, I didn’t know if I wanted to be Dónal. I wanted to be something more. I wanted to leave Dónal behind with a bang. I was told to do some crazy things but in the end I chose to be Dónal because when I made up my mind, either way I was going to have to leave him behind and I wanted to appreciate everything he had as a normal teenager.
I know it’s weird. People said that I was stupid, but I’ve met people who have no idea how lucky their lives are. And I wasn’t going to finish without appreciating what I had.
I spent those 10 days with my friends and family. On the Saturday before my chemo I went to Cork with my best friend and his brother. I nearly had another breakdown on the train but they saved me.
Straight away I was on the phone to another good friend of mine in Limerick and he helped me make up my mind about the chemo, and I owe it all to those three guys. They’re like brothers to me now.
I’m still in chemotherapy now. The ward hasn’t changed from the ’70s. Same beds, same walls, same curtains. I’ll never see that ward renovated. I don’t know what will happen to me, but I won’t be going back to the way I was. I don’t think I can. The next thing has to be bigger and better. It will be.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved