The kettle is always on in Cork for cancer survivors at the Girls Club

The cancer journey doesn’t end with the all-clear. Karen Funnell recalls the supports that provide helpful in the three years since she got the thumbs up.

There’s a lot to take in with a cancer diagnosis. Once the initial shock sinks in, you need to get your head around what happens next. Chemo, radium, surgery, scans, medication — the rollercoaster takes its toll — and the treatment can leave you feeling sicker than the tumour.

The journey doesn’t end once the cancer has been eradicated, though that is often where the traditional support seems to come to an end. The care I received at CUH was second-to-none and the medical team were like a comfort blanket, but you can’t expect to have your hand held indefinitely.

Healing — physically and emotionally — takes time, and moving on from cancer can be tough. It’s not always easy to discuss this with those close to you, or for them to know how to treat you. Being asked how you are can become wearisome, however well intentioned, but you don’t want people to stop caring either. It’s a bit of a minefield — the sickness has gone, but recovery is very much a work in progress.

Talking to someone who understands how you feel is vital to recovery. There is formal counselling, but this isn’t a route everyone chooses. Some prefer a cup of tea and a chat — which is where voluntary support groups play such a valuable role, because you can talk to people who have been through similar experiences.

The Girls Club Cork, which is based in Cork City, is a support group for survivors and their families, offering everything from a cuppa to counselling, a wig and scarf bank (a lending service — wigs typically cost over €500) and a range of holistic therapy sessions, including Reiki and reflexology. It also holds regular meetings for members, information nights on topics including health, beauty and lifestyle, and various classes and workshops.

Ann Dowley Spillane, herself a cancer survivor, set up the centre to give people and their families a place where they could ‘pop in’ without an appointment — be it for advice, a chat or a relaxation therapy (treatments do have to be booked, as the centre relies on volunteer therapists). As her Facebook page says, the kettle is always on.

Girls Club Cork founder Ann Dowley Spillane with some of it's members at the drop-in centre.

“My saying to everyone is you are a survivor from the day you are diagnosed and my mantra is I got cancer but cancer never got me,” Ann says.

Demand for the services is high and The Girls Club relies entirely on voluntary donations. Thanks to the kindness of others — and the hard work of volunteers — the treatment rooms have been kitted out beautifully. On a recent visit, a young woman dropped in a selection of gorgeous, handmade blankets for the blanket of hope appeal (the club donates blankets to chemotherapy units across the city). Five minutes later, two ladies from Women’s Fitness gym in Cork came in with a cheque for over €1,000, raised at a fashion show. There’s a constant buzz about the place — except in the treatment, counselling and meditation areas upstairs where, for obvious reasons, there is a more sedate atmosphere. One of the rooms is dedicated to a young woman who was diagnosed the same time as Ann, but who sadly lost her battle. Her four sons sometimes call in to see it.

A treatment room at the Girls Club, Cork.

There’s a lot of talk about a holistic approach to treating cancer (in conjunction with traditional medical measures), examining our lifestyles, diets, environment, and our state of mind. Positive thinking won’t shrink a tumour, but it certainly doesn’t hinder the recovery process.

Physically, cancer leaves a body a bit bruised and battered, particularly if you’ve been through chemo — sparse hair, dry skin, brittle nails, weight gain (or loss), and self-esteem that is well below par.

Most of us love a bit of pampering, but traditional spa treatments are not always an option for people who are undergoing treatment. I recall being given a voucher for an upmarket venue, and being sorely disappointed as many of the massage options were out of bounds. I also recall feeling self-conscious about my appearance, and finding it difficult to relax, which sort of defeats the purpose of a spa treatment.

Touch therapy is a relatively new venture in Ireland, offering treatments specifically developed for those experiencing the discomfort and side-effects of chemotherapy, radiotherapy or cancer-related surgery. It’s the brainchild of Dublin-born oncology massage therapist and skin specialist Christine Clinton.

In the mid-noughties, her husband was misdiagnosed with lung and liver cancer. She was profoundly touched by the cancer patients, she met in the six weeks that the misdiagnosis endured, and promised to dedicate herself to making a difference in their lives.

The more Christine worked with cancer patients, the more she saw a need to create safe and effective massage and spa therapies for those dealing with the long-term side effects of treatments.

The Nadur Spa at Ballygarry House, Tralee, Co Kerry, is one of the 10 venues in Ireland offering touch therapy. Therapists, who have been trained by Christine, use Lindi Skin, an FDA-approved skincare range which uses the most beneficial botanicals and antioxidants to deliver ultra-hydration to combat the harsh effects of treatment.

Gina Groves, spa manager, said: “We noticed how many of our clients were ticking the box saying they were living with cancer, which limited what treatments they could have. This is why we introduced touch therapy. We are one of a limited number of venues in Ireland that do it and have five especially-trained therapists. So far, the word has spread and feedback has been very positive.”

The spa offers three different treatments: The 60-minute Chemo Comfort Therapy (€80), the 60-minute Radium Relief Therapy (€80) and Life After Cancer Therapy.

I underwent the Chemo Comfort therapy. My therapist, Alexandra, was sensitive, skilled and knowledgeable, both about cancer and the benefits of a holistic approach to treatment.

Karen Funnell at the Tree of Life in the Girls Club, Cork.

She checked firstly about my treatment and surgeries, and then it was 60 minutes of pure, unapologetic indulgence. Using gentle products — perfect for anyone with compromised skin — she got to work on my hands, feet, face, head, and back. Nothing was neglected. It was the ultimate chill-out experience and I can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed. I only wish I’d known about it a few years ago. This would be a wonderful gift for someone having treatment, as, if only for an hour, it will take their mind off cancer.

Cancer doesn’t have to be the end of the road, but for those who survive it — and there are more and more of us every day — having the right support, physically and emotionally, is paramount to recovery.

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