LAHINCH’S Rachel O’Mahony is urging the public to support vital cancer research, by supporting Daffodil Day this Friday, March 25.
Rachel was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. As part of her treatment, she took part in a clinical trial for a cancer drug. Today, 14 years after her breast cancer diagnosis, Rachel is back to full fitness and health.
She is a patient advocate for research that looks at new ways to prevent, detect or treat cancer, including the world-class research funded by the Irish Cancer Society, the largest funder of cancer research in Ireland.
Originally from Cork, she has lived in Lahinch with her husband Declan for the last 25 years. When she was struck by cancer, it was a huge shock, as she was young and fit.
“I was 38 at the time and it was a bolt from the blue. Not that I ever took my health for granted, my Mum was a nurse and we were always mindful of our health, get your bloods done, be aware of it.
“Sadly my aunt had passed away at 54 after a very short illness, she was only sick for five weeks, that had happened in 1998.
“That shook us and my uncle then passed away in 2007, he went suddenly, he had a form of leukemia. He was 66. We had exposure to that, but I was 38, I was young, I wasn’t in that mindset, I never took my health for granted but I would have been very fit, very well.”
At the time she was working in banking, and was diagnosed after a health screening provided by her employer.
“I had a check in June of that year, the bank gave us this option to do a kind of full NCT, and your partner could get it as well. We were going to Dublin to a concert and I said we’ll do that while we’re up.
“During that visit I did mention I had breast tenderness, but I had always had it, but been checked by my doctor every few months. The doctor there told me there isn’t anything, but if you are concerned you could get an ultrasound.
“I rang my doctor then after the summer and they said they’d put me in for an ultrasound, no bother. There was nothing sinister or anything.”
She was referred to a surgeon at the Bons in Galway, and just ten days before attending she found a small lump.
When the time came she did the tests, and initially things seemed to look okay and she was feeling perfectly healthy.
“Because I felt so well it didn’t add up. Anyway, they did all the tests, the mammogram and ultrasound were clear, the needle biopsy he did was clear, but he also did a core biopsy as an extra. I left him that day and he said have a lovely Christmas, the core biopsy was the only one outstanding because it took ten days.
“Then I did get a call to come up, that he wanted to have a chat with me, and to bring Declan.”
Now things were looking more serious and when she got her diagnosis she was in a state of shock.
“It really was like an out of body experience, that people speak about. I was just watching it play out, and Declan was very visibly upset, whereas I’d normally be the real emotional one. I just was stunned really, there was no reaction from me. But he was really good, he said I’ll bring you in next Monday, surgery next Tuesday, and we’ll look after you.”
Things were moving fast and it was very disconcerting for a woman who had believed herself to be in good health.
“When I went in on the following Monday it was a mastectomy, and I got an awful shock then, it felt very radical.
“I wasn’t prepared anyway, it felt very quick, like a rollercoaster. But he was very reassuring, I really did trust him. It was a reconstruction and lymph nodes, it was a small lump, but it was quite aggressive, it had moved and there were some lymph nodes involved and he was taking those.”
She spent the next week in hospital and was discharged just in time for Christmas.
“They were very good and very kind in the hospital and I got through that okay.”
For the next six weeks she was recovering, and during that time she met with an oncologist who set out a treatment plan of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy, while they also mentioned the possibility of taking part in a clinical trial.
“They went through the whole protocol and I was a candidate. We had a think about it, and I was scared.
“They said I’d have a dedicated clinical trials nurse, they checked in with me every week.
“My chemotherapy initially was fortnightly for four sessions, and then I went to weekly sessions for 12 weeks and it was during that 12 weeks that the clinical trial drug kicked in with the chemotherapy.
“It was a trial for women like myself who had cancer for the first time, it had been used for people who had secondary cancer. They were trying to see if this drug used for the first time would mean less reoccurence.”
A nurse took all of her data every week, and she had to come off the initial drug after having a bad reaction.
Rachel was then placed on another more established drug, but was still part of the clinical trial. “I was a bit upset, but they said you’re still in the trial, but the drug you’re going on to now is the tried and tested one.
“I was still monitored as a trial, I was still part of it, and that was very reassuring. They would have looked after me then for ten years, normally your monitoring and treatment would be five years, but because I was in a trial it was ten.
“They do all the extra checks, heart echoes, mammograms, MRIs, there’s a lot extra done because they have to watch you closely. For me as a patient, that gave me more comfort because you know everything is being checked.”
Rachel found the chemotherapy very difficult, as it really drained her, leaving her feeling very disconnected from the world around her, where people were going along with their everyday business.
As time went on she worked out a type of pattern, where the first week after the chemotherapy would be about recovery, while the following week she’d come back to herself a bit.
“The first week for me was the hard week and the second week the fog would lift. You’d come out again, you’d arrange to meet a friend or go for a walk, you’d have a bit more energy and put your best foot forward.”
A fellow cancer sufferer, who she describes as “a lovely lady” who has since passed, gave her advice she found valuable.
“She said to me you do what you need to do. When you’re having chemo she said, if you don’t want to talk or meet people, close the door and take your time and listen to your body.”
Support from friends and family can be very valuable at such a time, she adds.
“If you have a friend or family member, just text them. You’re not looking for them to reply, but just let them know. It just pushes you on and drives you on to keep going.”
She stayed in a facility in Galway for much of the radiotherapy and found it was great for her.
“I used Inis Aoibhinn, which is under Cancer Care West in Galway, for my radiotherapy, I used to stay there because it was a daily treatment. You’d be up five days a week.
“They’ve a fantastic facility there and it was what I needed. I was getting radiotherapy for five or six weeks and I stayed there for four. I have to say they were just wonderful.”
Cancer has few benefits, but one plus that Rachel found was that she lived in the moment to a far greater extent than she did before or does now.
“I often say now I wish I could go back to living right in the moment, and I wouldn’t plan beyond the day.”
After the chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she was on another drug until the end of March 2009, while she got hormone therapy for ten years.
Only a few years after Rachel’s diagnosis, her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“Mum sadly got ovarian cancer in 2010. She was in her late 60s and she got seven months. That was
really hard, she hadn’t a good prognosis from the start, they gave her chemo really to give her a bit of time.
“When Mum passed away they looked at my situation, with her having had ovarian, I had breast, my aunt had secondary lung, they never found the primary because she had only a short time.
“There might have been a question mark over possible ovarian with her. They just recommended I get the test for the brca gene, thankfully I hadn’t it, which was great.
“We did talk about the ovaries, and I had my ovaries removed as a precaution. You’re thrown into the menopause and those awful things at a young age.”
While battling cancer is hard enough, the side effects are also very severe, and Rachel says that continuing to progress treatment is vital, and it must be supported.
“If they can make progress all the time with research, it means more targeted treatments and you might not have all the side effects. Your quality of life, you want to live well after cancer.”
In August of 2009 she went back to work in the Ennis branch of Permanent TSB on a job share.
She stayed there for the next three years, until an opportunity came up.
“There were redundancies coming up and I had been there for 23 years. I said I’m going to go. We were in a position that we were comfortable enough, we had the mortgage paid, Declan was working.”
Rachel went back to education, studying business at LIT, which she describes as “a wonderful experience”.
Since then she has also done work for MABS, while she has done a lot of voluntary work also.
With some normality having returned to society this year, she is urging the public to get behind Daffodil Day this week.
“I saw first hand the importance of research and clinical trials as I took part in a clinical trial during my own cancer journey and received a targeted therapy. I am now living well and beyond cancer,” says Rachel.
“I am very grateful to the Irish Cancer Society for helping to fund this life-changing research which has helped me and many others.
“Daffodil Day raises awareness around cancer and the fantastic work that the Irish Cancer Society and their wonderful volunteers do and highlights the importance of supporting in any way you can because it really does make a difference.”
This year the 35th annual Daffodil Day, is on Friday, March 25. Please, take back from cancer today by donating at cancer.ie/daffodilday. Anyone with concerns or questions about cancer can contact the Support Line on Freephone: (1800) 200-700