Rhona Nally has lived with metastatic breast cancer 13 years, an experience that helps her guide fellow patients as they learn to navigate the disease
In 2004, following an early stage breast cancer diagnosis and treatment at age 47, Rhona Nally felt hopeful. After a year that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a randomly discovered lump in her breast, she was thankful to be back on her feet, to return to her work as a school teacher, to feel healthy and to settle into the pleasant everyday activities of life with her husband and three young children.
But when within weeks she felt a sharp, persistent pain in her back, she grew concerned and made an appointment with her doctors. After a battery of tests, she learned that her confidence in having been healed had been premature: Rhona’s cancer had metastasized to her spine. Her earlier relief gave way to profound grief.
“I was just getting my life back,” she recalls. “I had young children and I had no prospect for a cure. I was suddenly a terminally ill patient.”
She did, however, possess a sliver of optimism, and with that, a dedication to learning as much as she could about metastatic breast cancer, the typical prognosis for which at that time was two years. More than a decade later, she has beaten most predictions for her disease, the typical prognosis for which is two years. Her will to continue living well has also translated into helping others who feel just as desperate as she once did.
“It’s natural to go through a period of bereavement and anguish,” Rhona says. “But I’m also an information seeker. You know your life is limited. In my case, I knew I needed to be proactive.”
Her call to action has propelled her into patient advocacy and prompted her participation in conference lectures around Europe along with television, radio and print interviews. Rhona is a volunteer with the Irish Cancer Society and serves on its steering committee. She also helped establish the Living Life group and developed an education/ support program for metastatic breast cancer patients. She works as a peer supporter and is particularly keen to help newly diagnosed patients living in more isolated rural parts of Ireland.
“My phone calls with them cover so many topics,” she says. “They, or we, face very different challenges than primary breast cancer patients. We talk about everything from managing treatment side effects, to coping with uncertainty, to helping their family and friends understand the complicated emotions that come with this illness.’”
While her own disease is stable, she still visits the hospital for treatment every three weeks.
Rhona says that on a larger scale, she focuses on the psycho-social services available – or sometimes not – that should be there to support patients with serious illness. She herself exhausted her sick leave when she was undergoing treatments.
“There are financial pressures, such as when you can’t work, or if you have small children and must pay for them to be cared for while you recover,” she notes. “More needs to be done to support patients beyond their medical treatments, this is something I see time and time again when I speak to other metastatic breast cancer patients:”
But regardless, her optimism remains.
“I’ve been extremely lucky,” she says.