'After cancer there's no getting back to normal, you need to find a new normal'
A Meath woman who has just won a ‘Rising Star’ award after a split second changed her life forever, is preparing to celebrate Christmas with her ‘miracle’ baby.
For Niamh Gaffney, life was wonderful in 2012 when she and her husband Sean welcomed their a little baby girl into the world.
The business woman from Carlanstown, Kells was preparing to return to her executive job in Dublin’s financial sector when that split second occurred which would alter her very being.
“I was getting dressed for bed and felt a lump in my breast. I was pretty sleep deprived at that stage and had been breast-feeding Anna so I thought it may just be a blocked duct,” she said.
“I told myself it couldn’t possibly be anything sinister but I got myself checked out anyway.
“My GP didn’t think too much of it but after a triple assessment in the Mater Hospital, when the consultant told me not to be coming in on my own for results the following week, I kinda knew I was in trouble.
“He knew and I knew but both of us said nothing.”
“I’m not one to worry anyone unnecessarily so I told Sean and while we acknowledged what it could be, we just got on with it and clung to some hope.
“Certainly, when I was on my own, things got scary but then you just swallow it and get on with it.
You live day by day and I had a baby, and a dirty nappy doesn’t change itself.”
One week later the diagnosis of cancer was confirmed and surgery was scheduled for the following day.
“I didn’t realise the surgery would happen so fast and I hadn’t even told my parents yet.
“It was a case of telling them ‘there’s a problem but by this time tomorrow, it’ll be gone.
“They thought the cancer was probably hormone related and that maybe I would only need surgery. I was then clinging to that hope.”
However because Niamh was dealing with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which is one of the rarest types of breast cancer, she couldn’t avoid dose dense chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.
This intensive treatment raised another prevalent fear for her. Infertility.
“Cancer takes an awful lot out of you and you can pay the ultimate price in terms of death. I was determined it wasn’t going to take the chance of another baby from me.
“Chemotherapy can have devastating effects on fertility and the medical team were very aware that this was of huge concern to me.
“So I went through fertility preservation treatment and had my eggs frozen, which took the scariness out of the whole thing.”
The treatment took yet another toll – Niamh’s lovely dark hair which, she admits, ‘was a big thing.’
“When the hair started growing back and I’d eyebrows again, I didn’t look as scary, or so I thought.
“When it grew to the stage when I had the tiniest ponytail again, my face seemed to just pop back out as if to say that’s me now, been hiding for the last year!”
After a gruelling and intensive year of treatment and recovery, Niamh was hit with another devastating life hurdle. Redundancy.
“I had worked in the insurance industry for 15 years, starting as an accountant and working my way up into operations.
“When I went to approach my job about going back after my sick leave, I was told they were making my position redundant.
“I really struggled with that and it was only then I realised the real impact the cancer had on me”.
All the negative thoughts and beliefs that had stayed hidden when she was in treatment came to the fore during her search for a new job.“I worried who would give a job to someone with a wig on, and even what job I would be able to do. I just didn’t know who I was anymore.”
It wasn’t until Niamh stepped back and realised what she really wanted to do was help people, that her true passion was unveiled.
“I had been coaching and problem solving informally in my job for years and I had a degree in psychology so I did a course in coaching to formalise things.
“As I was being coached during part of the course, I realised the massive need for this for anyone who has gone through a monumental life change.
“When you are undergoing treatment, you have huge supports available for you but when treatment ends, you find yourself suddenly alone. “Mentally and emotionally, you can’t go ‘back to normal’ because so much has happened and you’ve changed so much, so it’s important to find a new normal for you.”
With this realisation, and supported by her participation in the ACORNS programme for women entrepreneurs in rural Ireland, Niamh launched Directionality.ie earlier this year to provide coaching and consultancy for people who are dealing with life altering challenges, be it illness and bereavement, redundancy, retirement or new horizons.
She now works with companies to provide wellness programmes to their employees.
With Directionality, Niamh aims to ‘help you become the storyteller of your own story once more.
“Coaching is neither therapy nor counselling. It is quite simply support, clarity and motivation.
‘Often you just need someone to ask the right questions so you can find your own answers.
“You can unearth your purpose, your goals, your values and your beliefs so that you feel more confident and gain more clarity with your decisions and choices.
“You’ll find and embrace your new normal.”
Her gut feeling proved correct and her clients have been bowled over by the possibilities they discover through Directionality.
In recent weeks, she was awarded the International Coaching Federation’s Irish Rising Star accolade for 2016 because of her work with approved cancer support centres like Drogheda’s Gary Kelly Centre and the ARC Centre in Dublin, and for her mental health TedX talk “Challenging Change - Mental Health is Our Wealth”.
And perhaps the best news of all is the ‘happy ever after’ that arrived in September 2015.
Niamh’s son Jamie was born just two years after her cancer treatment and without any need for fertility intervention.
The miracle baby for herself, Sean and Anna.
“Many younger women who are diagnosed with cancer really worry about this, and the truth is that miracles really do happen.”
“As someone who has had her life turned upside down and who really struggled to understand who I was as a result, I’m so glad that I can say my own New Normal is an incredible one!”
Niamh can be contacted at www.directionality.ie or on 087 987 6101