Rita McGovern might be diminutive in stature but she has robustly fought cancer and ploughed endless energy to raising charitable funds.
She was born the daughter of two local doctors, Dr Hugh and Margaret McCaffrey, whose surgery was in Lurgan’s Church Walk and was drawn into the nursing profession herself.
And despite a lifetime around the Big C, it was a regular check up at Lurgan Hospital for women over 50 that alerted Rita to a cancer diagnosis.
Having had benign cysts for many years, she had not been overly concerned at the discovery of new lumps under her arms.
“I knew I had a lump but I had had them before and I had pinched at them, thinking they were cysts and they had gone away,” said Rita.
“I knew I had this one and it was hard and like a pea and then I noticed that within a very short time that had got a lot larger but I still wasn’t thinking of cancer so I went along to the clinic.
“I felt the glands under my arm were swollen and I thought it was an infection of some sort. I asked the mammographer to take a good look under my arm. Two days later I got a letter telling me to go to Craigavon to the Mandeville Centre. I was seen and got a biopsy that day.”
That was three years ago and the then 54-year-old Rita discovered she had breast and lymphatic cancer. She had all the lymph glands removed on the right hand side plus the lump she had initially discovered.
“That place (the Mandeville Unit) is like going into a dental waiting room and I met lots of other women there I knew.
“The doctor told me the lump was malignant so I returned to speak to the cancer nurse to see what treatments I might be suitable for,” said Rita. The oncologist explained that the cancer was not very common and because the cancer was not linked to hormones it is harder to get rid of. “I was also told that I wouldn’t have a long time if I didn’t do the treatments,” she said, adding that she was given around two years without treatment.
However Rita had been through so much in years prior to her diagnosis with other family members ill with cancer and other illnesses and losing her father and mother. And she wasn’t about to let the cancer beat her.
And she discovered that four other people living in her neighbourhood also had cancer.
“I had the chemo and I honestly wasn’t that worried about it,” she revealed.
“Some people thought Chemo was horrific. I found the first three alright. They were tolerable. But then they changed mine and the next dose was horrific but they do give you tablets to counteract it.” The second one of the second dose was particularly painful for Rita. “I told Mr Hanna (consultant) on the third dose. I said if you want me to take it Mr Hanna, I will take it but I don’t think I will survive it. My body just can’t take it. He agreed with me and thought that I had plenty as I was so slight anyway. Then I had to go for radium, every day for nine weeks.
“They were lovely in the City Hospital. The only thing about it was that there were people I was talking to from Cookstown and much further away than me coming on buses for an appointment and going home with a bucket in a bus. I thought that was appalling. Surely in this day and age the local hospital could arrange to have had them brought down on one of the hospital buses.”
Rita had herceptin for several months and while having that treatment heard about the Charis Centre from a neighbour who also had cancer.
“When I arrived at Charis I was blown overboard. I thought the building and where it is situated is lovely. When you go in Imelda greets you and they are so terribly friendly.
“It’s like a haven. It is a bit like being cocooned in a strange way as all the treatment rooms are underground yet you don’t feel claustrophobic.”
From the Greek word for charity, Charis has had a profound effect on Rita.
“I think that everybody who has cancer, they might be alright most of the way through it but it’s nearly when you are coming to the end of treatment, it almost feels like you have been abandoned. Before you had been seeing people every day, you have been doing things and suddenly there is nothing. I think a lot of women and men get depressed. You can be very down and when I saw this place, I thought I like the look of this.
“Once I got into it and met the people - you get your doctor’s letter saying that it is alright to work on you and when I went up to it, it was absolutely brilliant.
“I went for reflexology. The girl who was treating me was called Jackie and by the end of it she was like my best friend. I know they have counselling but what I found is that certain people can’t deal with cancer and they are terrified the whole time and they are unable to speak about it. But at this place, even your therapist who isn’t necessarily the counsellor - you end up telling them everything. And when you get it out of your system you feel a lot better.
“I met a lot of people there. They give you tea coffee biscuits and tender loving care, the whole lot. You can stay there all day.
“It is really good for people who are maybe slightly frightened because they are with others in the same boat.
“You can have six weeks of therapies, once a week. And no matter who is with you, your best friend or family, they will get the treatments also.
“Of all the things I have seen connected with cancer, I thought this was absolutely brilliant. It’s really uplifting. It lifted me out of limbo. I could tell Jackie anything and I think sometimes that’s all you need to talk things out. She was brilliant with her hands and the massages etc. You can have a facial massage or a back massage.”
She raised cash for the Macmillan Nurses in Craigavon Hospital and Charis.
“I want everyone to know what a wonderful facility it is,” said Rita.
Rita thanked Thomas McConaghy from the Courthouse where she held a fundraiser recently. She thanked all the musicians who played including John Kingham, The Sleeping Dawgs, The Jury Disagrees and Gypsy’s Wish.