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Battling the storm: A cancer patient’s diary

26 July, 2010

103pp. First published by The Irish Catholic 2009. Veritas 2010. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie CONTENTS Introduction by Tony Hanna  I Have Cancer  Cancer is a Lonely Place  Cancer is a Lesson in Humility I Have Been Very Touched  The Unmentionable Sacrament We Take Things for Granted in the Developed World  This I las […]

103pp. First published by The Irish Catholic 2009. Veritas 2010. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie


Introduction by Tony Hanna 

  • I Have Cancer 
  • Cancer is a Lonely Place 
  • Cancer is a Lesson in Humility
  • I Have Been Very Touched 
  • The Unmentionable Sacrament
  • We Take Things for Granted in the Developed World 
  • This I las Not Been the Best of Weeks
  • First my Dog, Now my Car!
  • A Modern  Hospice  Has Everything a Person Facing the Final Homecoming Might Need
  • The Rosary is a Consoling Prayer
  • Suffering Produces Endurance 
  • A&E Can Be a Pagan Place
  • The Virtue of Character
  • People Who Are Suffering Need to Talk to Others 
  • The Promises of Christmas 
  • Facing Death with a Positive Attitude 
  • Remembering a Great Organiser – Monsignor Tom Fehily
  • Two ‘Mini-Miracles’ in One Week 
  • A Testimony of Healing
  • Celebrating the Gospel of Luke 
  • I Hope History Will Be Kind to the Brothers
  • Cherish the Gift of Life
  • Goodbye and Farewell 



When Martin first told me he was thinking of writing a series of articles chronicling his battle with cancer, my first instinct was to dissuade him. My reasons included an amalgam of distaste for the subject matter, fear that it could become a maudlin exercise, concern that it would be too traumatic for him and a suspicion that he would be unable to sustain his normal trenchant and perceptive analysis. At the time, I kept my counsel from him, although I did express my reservations to other mutual friends.

Yet, as often before, his instincts proved far superior to mine. The articles which he has penned over these months of his illness provide a compelling human witness to the beauty of life, the mystery of death and the tangible presence of a God of love who hovers insistently and graciously in the midst of suffering and helplessness. Martin’s stories are told not only by a consummate journalist but also by a wordsmith who revels in the poetry of life; he sees with the eye of a poet the sacramental bursting forth in unexpected places; his compassion for others is ever present, as is his honesty and his self-deprecation. Woven seamlessly into each story is the human and the divine, ever at play in the fabric of life.

One cannot separate the work from the man. Martin has always been at ease with people, comfortable in his own skin and largely non-judgemental of others. He has moved among princes and paupers, kings and servants, and he has always had the priceless gift of being able to engage with all of them. He is fundamentally interested in people, in their story, in their humanity. He has a compelling curiosity about life and he sees wonder in the sublime and in the broken, in the magnificent and in the tragic. He has a wonderful ability to communicate even complex events or stories simply and effectively. And all of this is grounded in his profound understanding of his own priesthood.

The stories speak not just of a cancer patient dealing with his own fragile humanity but they show us a man of deep faith confronting impending darkness with courage and at times an almost brutal honesty.

In his last article we read:

I must believe that, somehow, God is directing what is happening at the moment. I have often talked about listening to God, hearing his voice in the circumstances of our daily lives, and this is right, but it becomes more difficult as the circumstances toughen.

Martin has always had the gift and the courage to tell it as it is and cancer has not robbed him of this. His open confrontation with the spectre of death is challenging but also strangely comforting. Martin shares honestly his struggle with prayer as his strength diminishes. He finds consolation in the rosary, a prayer that oftentimes before he found difficult. We see someone who loves life to the full beginning to let go and allow God teach him again about a deeper trust in his providence.

His stories are personal and at times painful but they are never self-indulgent. We are invited into the rawness of suffering and the stripping away of dignity and independence. We read of the loss of his beloved dog, Uisce, their momentary, mutual joy of rediscovering each other after separation, the loss of his car, the loss of his balance, the sense of being helpless. We read of his dependence on others, the testing of his faith, his struggles to make sense of it all and always the deep gratitude for his family, for his friends, for fellow sufferers, for the professionalism and care within the medical teams, for his faith.

His struggles cause him to remember others whom he has met in the midst of his priestly ministry. He speaks movingly about the work of Mother Teresa among the poorest and most destitute; he recalls abject poverty in Africa; he agonises over Haiti; he cites a moving letter from a fellow cancer patient, Kathleen; he eulogises Monsignor Tom Fehilv; and he recalls with deep fondness his schoolboy days with the Jesuits.

The articles are peppered with references to a wide variety of people; Robert Redford, Lance Armstrong, Kris Kristofferson, Steve McQueen, Sylvester Stallone mingle with Pope Benedict, John Henry Newman, Nelson Mandela, Francis of Assisi. Many other names of unsung heroes find their way into his stories. Little people, identified often only by their first name, are highlighted for their courage, their compassion or their wisdom. For him they are spiritual giants who have befriended him or encouraged him in some way. All of these snapshots of people and events that have been part of his life find their way into the tapestry of his stories. And somehow it all fits. His ability to bring apparently disconnected things into unity remains unimpaired and his sublime communication skills continue to provoke and challenge.

His love of literature is evident in many of his articles and he has found the work of Jessica Powers particularly inspirational. I know that Martin first discovered her whilst on a retreat in New Mexico and he has often referred to her in his writings and in the many conferences that he has given. Her poetry was born from a life of prayer and meditation and Martin recognises the enduring quality of truth in her work. Her poetry touches something very deep within him. It gives him life and he wants to bring that life to others. Jessica Powers is for him a source of deep spiritual nourishment that he wants to share with others.

The ‘loneliness of mystery’ is one of Martin’s favourite lines from Jessica Powers’ poetry, and he cites it in one of these articles. He often spoke to me about the essential loneliness of priesthood, almost a prerequisite sacrifice that one had to make in order to be a priest. Although he had a host of friends, he was familiar with loneliness and he understood something of its mystery. He touches on the solitude of silence and beckons us to enter into that lonely, mysterious place wherein God waits. With profound clarity, he reminds us of the futility of chasing after the things we thought important but which dim when confronted with immortality and eternity. Walter Percy, the American novelist, once said, ‘We can get all A’s in our exams and still fail life’, and Martin would confirm this school of thought.

I found this article to be one of the most poignant stories in the collection because it speaks with savage honesty of clinging on ‘by the fingers of our will’ when we are in the desert. Consolation and happy thoughts are driven out and it is in the emptiness and silence of loneliness that all our transient illusions are scattered and the mystery of God becomes present and real. It is a time for clinging and any cancer sufferer knows what this desert is like.

Another constant throughout these articles is Martin’s deep love for the word of God that has nurtured him all during his life. Apt quotations from scripture are embroidered into most of the articles. We read that ‘God’s mercies are new every day’, that ‘suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’, and we can understand how he identifies with, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

For most of his readers, Martin is easy to understand, easy to like, easy to love. He comes to most of us not in an adversarial way but as a friend, as a companion, as an encourager, as an incisive and astute commentator on Church and society, as a prophetic figure who reminds us of our worth in the eyes of God. However, for some, especially those in authority, Martin is a resolute critic who challenges pride and arrogance, who questions outdated structures and calls people back to Gospel values. His penchant for disturbing the peace is still in evidence in these articles, in no way dimmed by the weakness of body caused by cancer. He continues to challenge the Church and its leaders to be accountable for their actions. Yet, he looks back fondly on the work of the Christian Brothers and pleads for a gentler, historical verdict on their contribution to Irish society. Martin was never one to say the politically correct thing. He spoke the truth as he saw it and that endearing, albeit disturbing, trait continues. I always thought he would have been a wonderful bishop but that would have taken his talents in another direction and we would not have had such a steady output of pugnacious, bold content.

Martin Tierney has been one of the giants of the Irish Church over the last fifty years. His life has been a constant ‘yes’ to the call of God. ‘Yes’ to being a good and faithful priest who served with compassion and commitment. ‘Yes’ to being a kind, loyal and generous friend who always went the extra mile. ‘Yes’ to being a holy and caring pastor who reached out for the lost sheep and rescued the broken and the lonely. ‘Yes’ to being a prophetic voice that called Church leaders to account, one who spoke the truth in love and took the rejections and the rebuffs that inevitably followed. ‘Yes’ to being a champion for the emergence of laity into real roles commensurate with the dignity of their baptism and ‘yes’ to being a wonderfully perceptive and truthful commentator on life and death. We see all these noble qualities exemplified in these last articles.

William Butler Yeats once said, ‘My glory was that I had such friends’. Martin Tierney has been my friend for over thirty-five years and it has been my privilege to be numbered among his companions. He has been a mentor, a jokester, a wise guide, a companion and a confessor. He is truly a holy man of God, someone whose love and wisdom has helped to shape my own life and the lives of countless others. He is a great man in the truest sense of that word and his greatness shines forth in these last articles. I consider him to be one of the heroes of my lifetime and his courage and his faith are fully in evidence in these final writings. I have no doubt that they will speak eloquently and sensitively to those who are dealing personally with cancer or to family members who are caring for sick relatives. I pray God’s infinite kindness on Martin and on all who are dealing with cancer.

Tony Hanna
April 2010


It was like standing on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher in a force 5 wind and being told, ‘At the count of ten you will be pushed over’. There would be no debate, discussions or negotiations – the verdict was final!

Briefly I looked down into the abyss of jagged rocks, grey foaming breakers, and the places where my friend Johnathan, of the Doolin Sea Rescue Unit, recovered bodies, some of whom had sadly decided that the world would be a better place without them. The cacophony of sound from the wheeling razorbills, common gulls and Atlantic puffins restrained the menace of the place. Of course, it didn’t happen like that. But when the consultant came into the room in a Limerick hospital and said, ‘I have bad news for you’, I could only respond, ‘How bad? Tell me.’

‘Well,’ she said, ‘you have serious bowel cancer, and you also have cancer of the liver and the lungs.’

Whew! My intellect and my emotions were on parallel lines. They didn’t want to meet and so I felt nothing, or very little. Like a six-year-old schoolchild about to be punished, I asked feebly, ‘How long do you think I have to live?’

‘Obviously I can’t be definite but I would say about a year,’ she replied. The Cliffs of Moher metaphor seemed very apt.

By that time, my sister Hilda had arrived unexpectedly and that was a great support. Ever since childhood I have known that cancer changes lives – not only the life of the person carrying it but also the lives of friends and family members who love and care for that person.

I thought of death notices in the newspapers, which often read: ‘Died after a long illness borne with patience and dignity.’ that be me? This is happening to me. I lie in bed grappling with the mystery of disbelief, as the world outside lies quiet around me.
The cows chew the cud, the hares and rabbits gambol in the fields as they always do at night, and the dogs still bark in the distance. I have cancer.

I believe this is true and at the same time I cannot believe it. This knowledge awakens me in the night; it catches in my throat and leaks out of my eyes and sets my heart pounding.

I think of how many people have heard this word ‘cancer’ pounding like an endless drumbeat inside their heads, relentless, unforgiving.

I have had my first massive dose of chemotherapy – I am on the journey at last! In a funny, peculiar way, I feel it is similar to the times my father and I went on the Lough Derg pilgrimage. We set out hungry, we anticipated hardship, but in the distance there was a bright hope.

This journey I am now on will hopefully continue until the middle of January. Over those weeks, with the help of God, I would like to share with you spiritual reflections. I do not want to engage in a narcissistic exercise. The world needs fewer celebrities, not more!

My proposal is not autobiographical. However, I need to set the scene in a way that is personal.

I would be bankrupt without faith in a loving God. Reviewing my own life and knowing how much of it I made a mess of, the reassurance that healing comes from knowing that, with God, ‘the past is past’ is consoling.

Jessica Powers begins her poem, ‘Repairer of Fences’, with what I think is a reflection of myself:

I am alone in the dark, and I am thinking
what darkness would be mine if I could see
the ruin I wrought in every place I wandered
and if I could not be
aware of One who follows after me.

In the poem she gives us an image of a patient God quietly undoing the damage we perpetrated during our lifetime.

Leave the past – it is no longer ours to change. God is in the darkness. When ‘darkness filled the whole earth’, he was there – waiting expectantly for the light of the Easter mystery to flood the world.

Those who suffer can be assured God is in the darkness with you – despite the fact that you may not be able to see or hear him.


Cancer is a lonely place. I look down at my body. My arms are gnarled and old. Syringe marks, like tattoos, speak of my recent medical history. I reminisce on those halcyon summer days in the 1950s, when morning after morning I ploughed up and down the fifty metre pool at Blackrock Baths. I was a member of the Young Leinster Swimming Club. I loved the water.

I won a medal in the Leinster swimming championships, only to have it thrown out a classroom window by an irate Jesuit who decided I wasn’t paying attention in class! I am sure he was right. I never saw it again! His self-indulgent, juvenile action hasn’t lessened my respect for the Jesuits.

This body that I am now looking at has served me well. It has travelled the world. It has suffered its bruises and its surgery. It is now old and ravaged with cancer. I am one of the 29,000 people in Ireland who each year will be told the bad news that a previously healthy body is now under attack with potentially fatal results.

John Maguire wrote recently in a daily newspaper of his experience of being told that he had cancer, claiming, ‘fear went through me like a cold steel scythe’. My attitude was something like: ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to die. It is bound to happen sometime.’ I didn’t feel terribly afraid of death itself, though the prospect of a long and painful dying process was frightening. I felt quite accepting, even resigned, all intermingled with the fear of not knowing.

Then things began to change. It is people who change things. The loving kindness of family and friends, who are not acting out a charade of concern, but whom you know really care, changes how you feel. When someone close to you has cancer it is hard to know what to do. You might be unsure when to visit or what to talk about. I know couples, where one party to the relationship couldn’t breach that private space that would have allowed them to share in the apprehension and the pain of the other.

Sadly, by not speaking to your friend or loved one, it can make them feel even more isolated and lonely. It is similar to huddling unaccompanied on Skellig Michael in a storm. The turbulence of the sea below is frightening. On a scale of one to ten, cancer is a ten in apprehension and fear. My sister Hilda, my brother John, nieces and nephews and friends of almost fifty years corralled me with a love and concern that was healing. Information, flyers, booklets and advice began to fly in my direction.

It was in hospital that I appreciated the ministry of the wonderful Jesuit chaplain – was that God sending me an angel of light to compensate for his brother-Jesuit of all those years ago?

The gift of compassionate listening is sacramental. You may not think you are doing much by just listening. In fact it is one of the best ways to help.

It was my friend Mary who maintained the umbilical cord between Dublin, Lahinch and Liscannor. And that was very important to me. The promise of prayer can be clichéd. But to the sufferer (at least to me) it is a real tangible triangle, binding my pain and me to God and to the person who is praying for me.

Marijohn Wilkie and Kris Kristofferson sang ‘One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus’, which goes, ‘I’m only human … Help me believe in what I could be, and all that I am. Show me the stairway I have to climb. Lord for my sake, teach me to take one day at a time.’ I try not to think about the future too much. Tomorrow I go for my second bout of chemotherapy – that’s enough for the present. Of course it was Cardinal Newman, who in his wonderful hymn wrote, ‘Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.’ Once more it is needles, tourniquets, plastic bags filled with chemotherapy, kindly nurses, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and, above all, answers to the many questions that crowd the mind.



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