Derry woman tells how cancer helped her battle her demons

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Standing on Buncrana beach Jacinta McShane held her arms open to the sea and felt completely healed for the first time.

The Derry woman, who now lives in England, said her return home with her son Josh in 2009 marked an incredible milestone in the life of a woman who had endured a childhood marred with physical, sexual and emotional abuse as a child. “I had buried it away,” she said. “Until I was diagnosed with cancer. Then I was allowed the chance to heal.”

Jacinta on Buncrana beach

Jacinta on Buncrana beach

“Coming back to Derry that time, having been on my journey, it was then I realised I loved my parents after all,” she said. “I don’t believe that I battled with cancer.

“I believe cancer was a gift given to me which made me stop in my tracks and deal with the hurt of my childhood. Without something as big as cancer I would never have been able to move on.

“I was stuck. Although I was this hugely successful business woman - incredibly driven - part of me was stuck as this scared little girl who just wanted to be loved and be heard.

“Cancer gave me the strength to find my voice,” Jacinta said.

Jacinta’s diagnosis of cancer came after a routine appointment with her GP in 2004 when she went to enquire about HRT treatment. “My GP did a series of standard tests including a breast exam and she commented that one of my breasts was bigger than the other.

“I wasn’t worried, that had always been the case, but she recommended that I get checked out anyway.

“I was so convinced that everything was absolutely fine that I didn’t take anyone with me when I went for tests. I thought my doctor was just being over cautious. So I was floored, completely, when they found a 2.5cm lump in my breast - cancer.

“As far as I was concerned that was it. I was dead. Not sometime down the line, but there and then. It completely and utterly floored me. I was terrified.

“I had options put to me, radical surgery, treatment and all I could think was that I had to go home and tell my son who was just nine.

“I had to be strong for him when inside I felt as if I was falling apart.

“I remember shouting at the doctors - I was very vocal - I pleaded with them to treat me as a whole person not just a breast with cancer, not just a number.

“Suddenly I was back to being this little girl who felt threatened at just three years old and who was emotionally, physically and sexually abused and who couldn’t find her voice. And I wanted to find my voice - to speak up for that little girl who couldn’t speak for herself.”

The diagnosis catapulted Jacinta back into the darkest days of her childhood.

Growing up above a commercial premises where her father worked on Shipquay Street in the 50s she fell victim to a cold and alcoholic mother and a father who betrayed her trust in the most painful of ways.

“My mother was unstable - an alcoholic. My father, well, he was okay. I always thought he was okay but his sexual abuse of me - which came to light during my treatment - that betrayal was like a cancer I had been carrying about all my life.

“I had always felt as if I was stuck in some sort of forest, looking for a way out.

“When the memories of my father’s abuse came out it was like a bolt out of the blue - I had buried it so far down - but I realised I had to get through that to be healed.”

Jacinta’s book recounts some of her childhood abuse experiences, which includes spending hours locked in the cellar of their home surrounded by mice and rats and falling foul of her mother’s vicious temper on numerous occasions.

The sexual abuse she endured started, she believes, when she was just five years old and she believed that this angered her mother more.

Her earliest memory, she recalls, is of her mother standing over her cot when she was just a toddler telling her: “You may be the apple of your father’s eyes but you’ll never take him away from me”.

Confused and unsure of what was happening to her Jacinta felt a strong bond to her father and could not understand when he would ignore her and give in to her mother’s demands to have her locked in the basement where she would try and make her bed among the coal.

Her childhood was spent vying for the attention of her father and trying not to anger her mother who would spend her days drinking, growing increasingly angry with each drink.

Jacinta’s story is painfully honest and moving, written in flashback alongside her detailed tale of how she faced her cancer.

“When I came home from hospital after my diagnosis I had no one I could offload to. I was a single parent and I could not express my fears and worries to Josh.

“He was struggling in his own way. My calm and quiet little boy began acting out in school before admitting he was worried his mother was going to die,” Jacinta said, breaking down.

“So I sat down and wrote it on the computer. The computer became my confidante, my soulmate. All the feelings and fears and worries I had just poured out onto the page. It gave me an outlet - a place to express myself through all my treatment.”

Jacinta underwent several operations to try and remove the cancer before it was decided that a mastectomy was her best option. ‘Hidden Gifts’ gently and movingly works through this experience as Jacinta recalls her thoughts and feelings about her surgery.

She then went on to chemotherapy and radiotherapy while experimenting with a range of complementary therapies including Issels therapy. During the course of her treatment she also underwent counselling which has helped her to come to terms with her past.

“No one would have known to look at me that I was carrying around this big hurt,” Jacinta said. “I had a successful business. I was a big earner.

“I had my son and I was very, very career driven. No one looking at me could have known that beneath it all I was still this broken little child who was terribly, terribly lonely and just wanting to be heard.”

Cancer, she said, gave her the chance to heal that little child. “I’m more loving now and forgiving. I feel different - more complete and at peace.

“I wouldn’t go back to how I felt before I had cancer. I am a whole person now and it shines from me.

“When I came back to Derry recently my old school friend saw me and said she could not believe how I had changed - how I seemed truly happy. She said even how I stood had changed.

“I didn’t seem angry any more.

“I have been able to let go of so much.”

Both of Jacinta’s parents have passed away. Until very recently she could not bring herself to visit their graves. The fact that, on her last visit she, along with her son Josh who is now 15, tended the grave together - a sense of peace washing over her.

“Everything happens for a reason and whatever lies ahead we’ll deal with it,” she says. “The fear is gone”.

‘Hidden Gifts’ is published by Austin Macauley and available from Amazon priced at £7.99.