At Her.ie, we get to meet a lot of inspirational women but as Evelyn O’Rourke cracks jokes as she talks about her horrendous battle with cancer, I make a mental note that she is most definitely close to the top of the list.
Best known as a reporter working on the Gerry Ryan Show and Radio One’s Arena, Evelyn’s world crumbled when she was diagnosed with breast cancer just days after finding out she was pregnant with her second child. Having come through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, not to mention giving birth to perfectly healthy son Ross, she has looked back on her experience in new book Dear Ross and took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to chat to Her.ie about overcoming adversity, carrying off the ‘bald and pregnant’ look and feeling grateful.
So Evelyn, where did the idea for the book come from?
Basically, I wrote a letter to Ross. I don’t really know why, I just did. My husband John read it and thought it was something that was very powerful. Being pregnant is a bit of a blur anyway, and being sick is a bit of a blur so combine the two and it’s a total blur! I think they felt it might be good to start charting it and registering it a little bit.
What I found was happening was that I was telling the big story and the action part, and then I would find it really necessary to talk to him directly and go ‘ignore all that, that doesn’t matter to you, what matters to you is that you’re growing and that’s all I need from you. Just ignore the medical stuff, that’s not your problem. We’ll be fine, you and I are fine, we know what we’re doing. We’ll get there.’ So it was almost like the letters became a heartbeat throughout the book and I stumbled on that as a form.
Tell us about how you felt when you first received the news.
It was horrendous, it was very difficult. We had started doing tests on my breast through May so I was a bit worried but not too worried. Then out of the blue on the June Bank Holiday weekend, I discovered that I was pregnant for the second time and I couldn’t believe it! I was over the moon. Oisin was only six months old at that stage so it was a lovely surprise! That was on the Monday and then, on the Friday, we were due to return for the results of the tests.
So I really wasn’t that worried and I think maybe part of it was naivety and part of it was that I was back in pregnancy mode. I slightly sauntered into the hospital on the Friday, so when he brought me into the room and said ‘I have this news to tell you’, it was just horrific. It was a really horrendous moment because you just knew your life was going to be completely unrecognisable. You had the joy of being a mum and a mum-to-be for four days and then that was completely stripped away from me on that Friday. We just had to leave the hospital to absorb our news and just go ‘I am pregnant and I have breast cancer, at the same time. Who does that?’.
What was the most difficult part of the experience?
I think what was really tough and one of the things that I struggled to get my head around was that my body was creating life, and destroying it at the same time.
I think the huge challenge was that you are generally very responsible when you are pregnant and it’s great that we take that so seriously now but I had to throw all that aside and have the general anaesthetic and chemotherapy and let all those drugs into my system while my baby is trying to grow. That was a really cruel thing to have to do. Intellectually, logically, medically, I knew it was sound but emotionally, that was a very tough thing to do.
I was stumbling through and then I got this phone call from Bridget Mulqueen, who was a Gerry Ryan Show listener and has seen a piece on my situation in the paper. She presumed I would be undergoing chemotherapy during the pregnancy and she had been there, so she rang me and I could hear her eight-year-old son in the background and he was the baby that she had carried through chemotherapy. And that changed everything. It was proof. He was there, he was healthy and he was annoying her about wanting to watch more television or something brilliantly normal and I was going ‘oh my god’. That carried me through to the first day of chemotherapy.
How difficult was it to go through chemotherapy?
Walking in that first day felt like walking into the slaughterhouse. It really did, it was awful because your natural instinct is to protect your baby and I suddenly felt that I was going in the opposite direction. That just felt really horrible and John was amazing, he was so amazing. We were sitting there and the chemotherapy needle started going into my arm, it was just horrendous. I kept saying to him, ‘I’m doing this, I’m being selfish’ and he kept going ‘no, you’re surviving, that’s what we need. You’re actually being generous, you’re putting yourself through this so that Oisin and Ross will have a mom’. Eventually that message would get through but it’s a very tricky, dark place to be…and grim and bleak and not nice.
John and I talked very early on about anger. I never felt ‘why me’. Unfortunately, incidents of cancer are very common in this country but I was very young to get breast cancer. I was 38 and that is unusually young. John said from the start ‘I can do all the emotional part of this this, except self pity, we are not doing self pity’. So they were kind of my orders. I could shout and wail and scream and be scared and panicked but we decided it would not be useful to sit around going ‘poor us’.
How did you deal with the physical changes of both the pregnancy and the treatment?
Being bald and pregnant is a really tough look to carry off with any dignity, may I tell you. I remember one evening catching myself in the mirror and I kinda didn’t recognise myself. I was bloated from the drugs, I was bald, my eyebrows were gone, I had a big bump and the whole thing was just like ‘who are YOU?’. That was very frightening. It just was endless. And I remember thinking ‘this pregnancy will never end’, this is just my life now.
I needed to just hand over that responsibility at some point so, on 2 February, the day came and it was wonderful to be able to deliver a healthy baby and go ‘thank god!’. It was only when they said ‘he’s perfect’ that I just suddenly realised that I’d been in a knot. My whole body just went, ‘phewwwww! We did it. Anything could happen now but we did what we could and he’s here. That bit’s done’.
How do you feel the experience changed you?
I still feel young and I feel that there are things that I want to do and I love that I feel that. The experience changed me in lots of ways but in other ways, I’m still the same chancer! My sister was saying ‘oh you’ll get really deep and profound now’ and I was thinking ‘oh god, wouldn’t that be so boring!’. It would be awful to be one of those people who is always like ‘oh at least we are all here!’. It could be quite tiresome so I’m glad that my sense of humour is back!
Gratitude. I’m just so grateful. When you are in an oncology ward and you’ve seen what other people are dealing with, it gives you perspective. Once you are in that world and you see the scale of experiences that people have to deal with, mine was so manageable that I’m so grateful. There’s no reason that I was given different news to anyone else, so I feel a huge debt. I feel a huge debt to the doctors, I feel a huge debt to anyone who has ever bought a pink ribbon and helped the research because all the research led to Ross and I being alive and well today.
I didn’t realise this research was happening because I was off having a lovely time but then I was in a doctor’s surgery and suddenly I was benefitting from all the work and all the money that people have raised, all the charity stuff that people have done and all the effort that doctors and researchers have done. Because of that, they knew what could be done, they knew what drugs they could safely give me and Ross during pregnancy to bring him safely into the world and that’s… amazing.
Dear Ross by Evelyn O’Rourke is available from bookshops nationwide now.