Sunday, January 27, 2013

Living and Loving with Cancer by Fanahan McSweeney

Living and Loving with Cancer
Fanahan McSweeney
Quill Print, 1994

Many years ago now, my father-- who is a gushing torrrent of wonderful and sometimes wacky schemes-- had the idea of starting up a bookshop. I still nurture something of a pang that it never came to pass. We never really got much further than acquiring some stock, in the form of donations of books. (I can't remember who they were from; hopefully organizations that were just trying to get rid of them.) Our shelves at home already had a pretty eclectic mix of books (I've always puzzled over who acquired Portugese Africa and the West, and how, and why), but this influx of volumes took it onto a whole new level. After these donations arrived, there was no title so odd or so niche but that might be nestling on the shelves somewhere. (The gem of the collection, in terms of sheer weirdness and obscurity, is definitely Canoe-Building in Glass Reinforced Plastic.)

There is nothing weird about Living and Loving with Cancer, of course, but it is the kind of book that I doubt I would have come across in the normal run of things. It caught my eye all those years ago (more than fifteen, easily) but it only ever occurred to me to read it this month. It is a memoir of a struggle with cancer written by Fanahan McSweeney, an Olympic-level Irish sprinter. Sadly, the author died the year after it was published (a fact I only learned when I checked on the internet while reading it). Happily, I also know from reading The Irish Times archive that the book had been a success in his lifetime, and that he even had feelers from poliical parties to stand as a candidate, as a result of its publication.

I think it was the word "loving" that caught my attention in the title; that, and the picture of the author with his wife and two sons gathered around him. I found that both of these evoked a very humanistic atmosphere. (Humanism is a strange term. Today it is often used as a synonym for "atheism", but of course, there is no necessary connection. It seems to contain a whole range of other meanings; humanitarianism, optimism, a belief in human dignity, a belief in human specialness, respect for other cultures, respect for the liberal arts, a suspicion of technocracy, and more.)

McSweeney began to write this book simply as a personal exercise, and was only persudaded by friends to make it public. It is written in a very direct, compelling, dramatic style. He does not hide the terror that his predicament caused him. Very often memoirs like this are lauded as being "unsentimental" and without "self-pity". But this is an honestly written book and such dubious compliments would not apply. Who on earth would be entirely without self-pity or sentimentality faced with an untimely separation from everything they loved? What also shines very clearly from the text, however, is the determination, cheerfulness and courage with which McSeeney faced his tribulations. We also witness the camaraderie of hospital patients and the patience, kindness and humour of nurses.

One irony of the book is that McSweeney's cancer is diagnosed in Cork Regional Hospital, a hospital he worked on as resident engineer, and whose every nook and cranny was well-known to him though he had never been a patient there.

When he does learn that a pain in his back is caused by a tumour in the spine, and that it is malignant, his reaction is (I suppose) the reaction most of us would have:

"I lay still for some time in the most stupefied trance imaginable. Hundreds and thousands of thoughts rushed through my mind. "I'm dead! Jesus, I have malignant cancer! I'm going to die! It has to be true-- there is no way my vetrebrae would have collapsed if my cancer wasn't malignant. It must surely have spread to all my bones...there's no way out! I can see it all now-- I'm the stiff in the timber overcoat. There is Fr. Andy, dressed in black, doing the honours. What am I going to do?"

Fr. Andy was the name of McSweeney's best friend, Fr. Andy Sheehan, a colourful young priest who was one of the stars of The Holy Show, a charity-raising singing troupe. Fr. Andy, tragically, himself dies of cancer of the colon in the course of the book's narrative.

This was Fr. Andy's initial reaction to McSweeney's diagnosis:

"Listen to me; as soon as you get up there, get on to Elvis, Jim Reeves, John Lennon, and all the friends we know, and in a very short time we all will be up there with you, and we'll have the hell of a party-- I mean the heaven of a party". He exploded with laughter, then cleverly steered the conversation to the carefree days we had spent on holidays in many and diverse parts of the word."

(This seems to me to be a very typical picture of Irish life and Irish Catholicism in the eighties, both the good-- the still unshaken, easy faith in the spiritual world and in Christianity-- and the bad-- the rather glib and cartoony attitude to the next world. Still, here was a priest talking to a dear friend facing death. Let me not be too hard. I should also mention that Fr. Sheehan proves the staunchest of friends to the author, visiting him every day in hospital and keeping his spirits up with his buoyant conversation. Despite the priest's usual jovial, hearty manner, McSweeney at one point notices that a complete transformation came over Fr. Sheehan when he celebrated Mass, at which time he became utterly solemn and serious.)

But this is a love story as well as a thriller. By complete chance, McSweeney is visited by a woman called Julie, a woman with whom he had once arranged a date, but a date which Fate-- in the form of a spells of Bell's Palsy's, a temporary palsy of the facial muscles-- had cancelled. Since he had cancelled the date over the phone, Julie had assumed that her admirer had simply thought better of meeting her and was making excuses. And the author-- never having so much as learned the name of the woman he had been so taken with-- had never seen her again, until she wandered by chance into his hospital ward.

The story of their love is a remarkable one. Although Fanahan McSweeney was warned by his doctors, even after his recovery from the worst ravages of the cancer, that his chances of survival were no better than fifty-fifty at most, he eventually proposed to Julie and they had two sons together. I found myself, reading this account, wondering why men and women seem so different in this regard. You rarely hear about men falling in love with and marrying women who are terminally ill or otherwise undergoing some deep affliction. I'm sure it happens, but it doesn't seem to happen nearly as much as with women. How are women so open to falling in love with men at the very nadir of their fortunes?

McSweeney's intitial dire prognosis turns out to be wide of the mark, but he is not off the hook. His life becomes a round of hospital visits, tests, chemotherapy, wheelchairs, rotating beds, nurses, waiting rooms, physiotherapy, neigbhours making dinner for him, and all the ills and consolations well-known to the seriously and chronically sick.

What I found especially touching about the memoir was the solidarity shown amongst the patients, and the sense of humanity and fun that patients and nurses and visitors cling onto despite the grimness of the situation. Passages like this one moved me:

"My first day back at St. Luke's was also my birthday. As the lights were dimmed that night I got a wonderful surprise: I was awaiting my painkillers and sleeping pills when the huge room began to brighten from the light of more than 30 candles. The nurses, who had bought a large, iced cake, began to sing Happy Birthday. I was amazed and delighted. After the singing and the blowing out of candles, the cake was sliced and ditributed to my forty or so room-mates. All joined in the singing and the congratulations."

McSweeney's illness makes him more conscious of the beauty of God's creation:

"Every morning when I opened my eyes, I personally thanked the Good Lord Himself for placing the sun back up in the sky. The blossoming flowers, the leafy trees, the singing birds, everything that was pure and wholesome, was part of the living God. God became so real and present that I sometimes doubted my own sanity. But the evidence was so overwhelming that I decided to enjoy every second of life that remained in me. It was truly great to be alive."

His dying friend, Father Sheahan, enjoy the same snse of revelation when leaving his hospital bed to enjoy the air for a brief few moments:

"Very quickly, he perked up and became positively entranced with his surroundings. 'Look at those flowers! Did you ever see anything so beautiful? And the trees-- aren't they magnificent? Do you hear that bird sing? Oh, my God, I've never experienced anything like this before! It's like being in the Garden of Paradise.

His astonishing rejuvenation moved me as nothing had ever done before. I felt as much in a trance as he. 'Everywhere around us, all the time, is the Garden of Paradise', I pontificated. 'But we rarely if ever appreciate it. In fact, that very blackbird there could easily be the Good Lord Jesus Himself in disguise, trying to tell us something.' "

Unfortunately, this sense of the wonder of life wasn't enough to keep the author attending Mass, proof that emotions are never enough when it comes to the spiritual life:

"Strangely, though, religious observance began to play a lesser role in my life. Attendance at Sunday Mass appeared less obligatory and urgent than it did when I was first stricken. Living each day to the full, seeing beauty in every created thing every God-given moment, was now much more important. God's presence was tangible everywhere. Reducing it to an hour on Sunday morning's seemed to be sadly limiting. This new and ever-present God was my kind of God."

I don't agree with that-- just because God is ever-present, it doesn't mean we shouldn't have special times and seasons in which to intensify our worship of Him. It is for our benefit, not His.

Still, this is an inspiring and spiritually uplifting memoir, and a testament to the nobility and bravery of its author. Ever since reading it, I have found myself making more of an effort to appreciate the beauty and wonder all around me, in every tree and every blade of grass and even in every mouthful of air that fills my lungs.


  1. Fanahan McSweeney Athletic club was founded in his honour 20 years ago. Still going strong

    1. Thanks Seamus. Sounds like a fitting tribute to a good and brave man. Long may it prosper!

  2. Fanahan McSweeney Athletic club was founded in his honour 20 years ago. Still going strong

  3. I knew Fanahan when he and I worked at a Catholic hospital in Lake Charles, LA in the late 60's. He was kind and funny, with absolutely no trace of arrogance in spite of his athletic prowess.

  4. He was in my Uncle wedding, that was in Merryville Louisiana. They were at McNeese State University together. I remember Fanahan being a Nice person

    1. That's nice to hear! Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.