A velvet patchwork quilt symbolises the struggle cancer survivor Sharon Burrell went through when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.
Sharon, 45, used her creative talents to stay focused on her recovery and combat the dichotomy of chemotherapy fatigue and elevated energy from steroids.
“You feel so tired, but because of the steroids you need to do something and you don’t know what. I used to sit and sow. It was a great way to not think and it was so calming.”
Nine years on, the quilt comes out every winter to keep Sharon warm and Sharon is a volunteer with the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), helping others combat the illness she conquered, by providing the services she once used.
“It was before my last chemo session that I reached out the Peer to Peer support system offered by ICS.”
Peer to Peer support puts cancer patients in touch with former cancer patients who offer guidance and hope with their tales of survival.
“It was just one call, but it was all I needed. The woman I spoke to was so reassuring. She told me about her experiences and I told her about mine.
“I had a lot of friends and family around me at the time, but this was a different type of support, she knew what I was going through. It was tangible.”
Two years ago, Sharon took up the role of support that saw her through her treatment and she has been helping patients find the strength to endure in their individual battles with cancer ever since.
“The organisation doesn’t accept people immediately after being treated for cancer, you need to have time to heal and absorb what you went through. I wouldn’t have been able for the position any sooner.
“We don’t offer any medical advice or information; we are just there to listen and to understand.
“Most people are just scared and want to talk to someone who knows what they are going through.”
Sharon, who lost her father and cousin to cancer, says treatment has improved a great deal since she fought the disease.
“Nine years ago, the treatment was much harsher, more generic. It was very tough.”
Although things have improved a great deal, there is still much to achieve and the recent announcement of ICS creating and funding the world’s first collaborative cancer research centre has brought hope to cancer patients and their families.
More accurate treatment, greater prediction and better definition of breast cancer are expected to be developed in Ireland over the next five years.
The centre, which will be given 1.5 million annually by the Irish Cancer Society for the next five years, is hoping to “answer a lot of questions” according to ICS Head of Research Professor John Fitzpatrick.
“This is the first of five collaborative centres that we hope to establish,” Prof John Fitzpatrick says, “These are virtual labs, the work will take place around the country, but it will draw together renowned researchers and prestigious academic facilities to focus on one common goal, which in this case is breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in Ireland with close to 3,000 cases a year.
“Ireland is the perfect place for this to happen, other countries are too small or too big, but we are the right size logistically.
“We will be looking at treatment based on the issue of cancer itself. Things change about the tumour as it develops and we want to be able to better define the tumour; such as aggressive or treatable.
“We will also be looking at biogenetic matter to assess genetic predispositions to cancer that can help predict or anticipate breast cancer.”
CEO of the ICS John McCormack, who has been with the organisation since 1987, says it is appropriate that ICS is pioneering this collaborative effort.
“I am delighted that we are bringing together national strength to tackle these issues.”
The charity organisation receives 20 million annually through charitable donations and provides a wide range of care and facilities to cancer patients and their families.
“98 per cent of our funding comes from public fundraising; there are a lot of supportive communities, volunteers and societies out there who are doing their best to raise money for ICS.
“There is no family who has not been touched in some way by cancer,” says Mr McCormack, who has personally lost close aunts and uncles to the illness.
Another great organisation affiliated with ICS is the ARC cancer support centre which offers support and counselling to anyone affected by cancer.
Sharon says she took great comfort in regularly visiting an ARC centre during her treatment and recovery.
“In the hospital, the doctors are so busy it is very easy to feel lost in the system. ARC is the opposite of a hospital, everyone just fits in and you feel nurtured.
“I got great support there, psychological and emotional. They ran classes as well that were a great help, I did yoga which I found very calming and sometimes I just went down to have a chat over a coffee.”
Sharon says her experiences with cancer did not deepen her bonds with friends or family, but it showed her how close they already were.
“I have been part of a book club for the past ten years, every month we met and discuss a novel. One meeting there was a big cardboard box in the middle of the room. I didn’t know what it was and when I opened it, it was full of balloons. It was so sweet.”
Sharon said her family were an incredible support to her. Sharon describes her mother, who also nursed her father through two cancers until he died of a prostate tumour, as “an absolute trooper.”
Faith also had a part to play in Sharon’s recovery. “My faith was paramount to my recovery, my local choir, which I am part of, is a fantastic support group.”
Surviving cancer nine years ago changed Sharon’s value system and challenged what she wanted to achieve in life.
“It was character defining, I learned a lot from it. It sounds like a cliché, but it was a blessing in disguise.
“I met some amazing people and it changed my perspective on things. I started to see we are all living and dying at the same time.
“I realised life is too short and you have to take chances.”
When Sharon was first diagnosed she was 36, she had just finished a Masters in theatre, and she was about to start a job working for a dance company in Dublin.
“It was exactly what I wanted at that time and it was sickening to let it go, but when I recovered I wanted to do something different, something unique and quirky. I wanted to make a difference.
Sharon is now an information officer for a non-governmental organisation and has her own line of jewellery; Dual, which she makes herself from fabrics.
Every year Sharon gets an annual check-up and next July is a big date in her diary as she will be celebrating ten years cancer free.
“I will be expecting a champagne reception that day, I must start dropping hints!”