Carol Ann Creagh has always felt that she was being ‘watched over’, and no time more so than when she was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago. Her newly published book Angels Under My Bed is a moving and honest account of her experience of the illness. LAURA MURPHY reports
WHEN Carol Ann Creagh was told she had breast cancer, after the initial shock, numbness, and heart-chilling fear that she would not live to see her children grow up, her secondary reaction was, unbelievably, not, ‘why me?’
Instead, the north Belfast woman, who had been a nurse all of her professional life, and helped care for other people when they were ill, says she thought to herself: “Why shouldn’t it be me who gets it?”
And then, the vivacious mother-of-six, admits that her “practical head” took over, and it was a case of: “Right, I’ve got it, deal with it. Fight to see (my children) grow up, don’t roll ever and give in, because that’s the exact same philosophy I pass on to patients.”
Carol Ann’s battle with the disease has been chronicled in a book which she just recently launched, in a bid to share her story and provide hope and inspiration to other sufferers.
Angels Under My Bed is a vivid, personal, and highly moving account of the physical and emotional impact of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
“The reason I called it Angels Under My bed is because I wrote it in 2005 / 06 and I put it under my bed,” says Carol Ann, now 44.
“I have a memory box under my bed with all my kids’ things in it - baby bangles, hospital bracelets, mother’s day cards.
“I’ve always felt that in life I’ve been guided, and that I’ve been protected.
“What’s not in the book is that I’ve been in an IRA bomb, a car crash, and I nearly set my mum’s kitchen on fire me in the middle of it - so somebody is looking out for me, it has to be more than good luck.
“The thread that runs through the book is about the strangers that come into your life for whatever reason to help you at that moment in time - and then disappear again.”
The daughter of well known UTV journalist Jim Creagh, who sadly passed away in June this year from cancer, and sister of priest Kieran Creagh, who was badly wounded in a shooting incident in South Africa in 2007, Carol Ann’s life, up until that day in March 2002, when she found a lump in her breast, had been an active and full one.
She was married to Patrick, was mother to Ciara (now 28), Aisling, 27, Sinead, 25, James, 23, Paul, 22, and Conor, 20, and working as a practice nurse at a surgery on the Antrim Road.
Then one chilly March night, whilst sitting up late typing at her computer, she slipped her hands inside the fleece to warm her fingertips up - and felt a lump.
“I found it by chance,” she recalls.
“I do breast and cervical screening in work, so I encourage ladies to check their breasts as part of my job.”
Just a month earlier, Carol Ann had followed her own professional advice and checked her breasts. Everything seemed fine - but now, it wasn’t.
“I thought, ‘Oh dear, oh no, that’s not good’, because I knew it wasn’t there a month earlier. I knew what I taught and I knew what I thought - but I also knew that 90 per cent of breast lumps are benign.”
She adds: “But I was the 10 per cent.”
When she was told that it was malignant, she admits that it seemed like being handed a death sentence.
“I had worked with patients who had died from breast cancer so of course they’re the ones who come into your head, you couldn’t think of the people who had survived. My life stood still while everything around me kept moving.
“I felt numbed by it, really. You suddenly hear the word and nothing else registers - and then you have this moment of nothingness, and then this sense of ‘what now’?”
At this stage, her youngest child Conor was in primary school, while Ciara had just started university.
“I thought, ‘my goodness, I’m not going to see them grow up, get married, graduate, have children. I just had this awful sense of dread that I wouldn’t see them grow into adulthood - and my life is my children.”
Carol Ann had to undergo a partial mastectomy, eight sessions of chemotherapy, and 25 of radiotherapy.
In her book, she goes into detail about the toll the treatment took on her body - but her sense of humour is by no means quashed.
“There were good days, there were funny days, it wasn’t all bad,” she tells me.
“I remember in Form Three getting an award in a drama festival for best supporting actress, and I think I just dug deep and found that wee actress again. For that year I just ...carried on and probably kept a lot to myself, my fears and angst were hidden.
“But there are days in adversity that you can laugh. Trying to do something with a bald head, no eyebrows, no eyelashes - really, you just have to laugh at yourself, because there’s not much else you can do when you look like a potato!”
Carol Ann says that after her treatment was complete, she felt she needed something more to help her continue on her road to recovery, and she turned to the alternative therapy Reiki, a spiritual practice founded by a Japanese Buddhist.
“I felt that to heal myself emotionally... I needed to reach a more spiritual level of acceptance and find peace with it,” she says.
She adds: “I think that alternative complementary therapy is a bonus option.”
In Angels Under My Bed, she described her experience of Reiki as a “life line”, and she tells me that it enabled her mind to drift “off to the most beautiful places that seemed to help me heal”, and gave her a “great sense of wellbeing.”
Physically, as her recovery from cancer progressed, she also took on a rather mammoth challenge in August this year, when she decided to walk 250 miles of the Camino de Santiago in memory of her father Jim, raising funds for the Friends of the Cancer Centre.
“When he died I was a bit lost,” she says.
“I needed to do something more positive than just sit and cry, so I decided I would walk the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.”
(Also known as The Way of St James, this is a collection of old pilgrimage routes which cover all of Europe.)
Carol Ann continues: “I did it carrying my dad’s blackthorn stick. He and I loved walking - he taught me to love walking, and I thought the only way to pay tribute to him was to do what he and I did best.”
This is not the only expedition the Belfast woman has taken on since her experience of cancer - in 2008 she travelled to Mozambique with Habitat for Humanity, and a year later she nursed at an AIDS hospice in Africa.
She says that she always had “that spirit of adventure in me”, but ultimately, juggling motherhood, marriage and a career demanded most of her time.
And she admits that cancer has changed her attitude to life, and cajoled that adventure-seeking spirit out of her a little more.
“When I decided to do the Camino I decided it one week and I went two weeks later, whereas maybe pre-cancer, I would have thought, ‘I would like to do that, I’ll do it next year’,” she says.
“The way I live my life now is if I think about something I do it. I don’t ponder the options - I just do.”
Mercifully, Carol Ann’s cancer has not returned in any life-threatening form, although she refuses to take anything for granted.
“You get scans and scares, that’s how I would put it.
“A few months ago something showed up on my liver and my lungs so they started to investigate with further scans. I’ve had three liver scans in the last four months but they’ve all been OK.
“You’re only one scan away from it coming back. You don’t really say you’re ever clear.”
For now, she is content that her book will reach out to those also affected by cancer, and says she wants her story to “give people diagnosed today or tomorrow with a lump, some hope.”
And her advice to everyone, cancer sufferer or not, is to seize life and achieve those dreams “because you don’t know if you’ve got that tomorrow”.
n Angels Under My Bed is published by White Row Press priced £7.95 and is available in the News Letter Bookshop, 6-9 Donegall Square South, Belfast or telephone 028 90897700.