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Sarah McGrath from Clarecastle, who has been nominated by government to be the next Ambassador to Singapore, was keen to take part in the clinical trial, in part as a way of saying thank you for the treatment she had received for cancer.

Clare woman’s trial after her cancer tribulation


A CLARE woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer has opened up about her experience of taking part in clinical trials, and is encouraging others to ask their doctors if a trial is suitable for them.

Sarah McGrath from Clarecastle, who has been nominated by government to be the next Ambassador to Singapore, was diagnosed with hormone receptor positive breast cancer in May 2020.

On her last medical oncology appointment she heard about the opportunity to take part in the ‘Add Aspirin’ clinical trial funded by the Irish Cancer Society which is ongoing and focussed on studying non-occurrence. She says it was an “easy decision” to take part in the trial and the experience has been “very positive”.

Sarah spoke to The Clare Champion ahead of International Clinical Trials Day on May 20, with Cancer Trials Ireland hosting a free webinar on clinical trials for members of the public on the day.

Usually based in Dublin Sarah tells us it was a “weird twist of faith” that saw her being at home in Clarecastle when she discovered a lump.

“I was recovering from a broken ankle and the pandemic happened so I was staying at home when I found the lump. I went straight to the GP and was referred to University Hospital Limerick. At the time I didn’t really think anything of it, I’m very good at getting things checked out and always think it’s better to go but I expected them to say it’s nothing.”

Sarah underwent a triple assessment of a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy before receiving her diagnosis.

“A cancer diagnosis is a traumatic event and my main reaction was shock, because I had no other symptoms beyond the lump. Once you are in the system though, you soon discover it’s somebody’s story every day but you just don’t expect it to be yours when you are 39.”

Her treatment included two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, with Sarah marking her 40th birthday while receiving treatment in hospital.

She has nothing but praise for her consultant, surgeon and all of those at the breast cancer unit in Limerick.

“I know it’s a scary experience and everybody’s journey through it is different depending on what their prognosis is, but I have to say I really don’t think I could have been taken care of more.

“The breast care nurses were amazing, they were very much ‘if you have any questions, call us’. The same again when you move beyond the surgical point into chemotherapy and across to the cancer centre, they were fantastic.”

Cancer treatment during the pandemic, and pre-vaccine, meant she was restricted on who could see her due to the risk of Covid-19 while immunocompromised. She is particularly grateful that she as back in her home village of Clarecastle during her diagnosis and received treatment in Limerick close to family and friends.

She was well minded by her mother Anne and her partner Ben, while all her friends and colleagues kept in regular touch.

“I had my lovely mammy to look after me which was great, she was super. But also it was great being in the place I grew up. I’ve a great group of friends from school and they sent me presents after every chemo.

“A great friend of mine Ada Power, who sadly passed away before my treatment was finished, as far as I can tell she had all of Clare saying a prayer for me. She was a great woman and when I finished my treatment I really did think of her, but also of all of the people who have supported me. Those who I knew, and had known, since I was a child, and also some of those I didn’t know. It was just a really nice feeling to know that people were looking out for me even if it was just thinking of me in their own house.”

She was advised at her last medical oncology appointment that she was eligible for participation in the ‘Add Aspirin’ trial and was given the opportunity to speak to the clinical trials nurse to learn more. The trial involves Sarah taking a daily tablet which may be aspirin or a placebo.

“I think when people think of clinical trials they think it’s very cutting edge exciting new medications. But the one I’m on, aspirin, has been around for a very long time and they are trying to see whether taking daily aspirin reduces the risk of the cancer recurring.

“It’s a trial for patients with different types of cancer who have had treatment with curative intent and is run in a number of countries with the Irish Cancer Society supporting the trial in Ireland. It’s a double blind trial, neither I nor my doctors know whether I’m on the placebo or on a 100mg of aspirin or a 300mg of aspirin.”

Her decision to take part in the trial was partly as a way giving something back in support of the research which had helped her and others. Also she finds reassurance in the regular check-ups and engagements with the team immediately after her treatment.

“For me it was an easy decision given the nature of the trial, just taking an aspirin or placebo. I felt so well looked after the whole time I’ve gone through my treatment.

“I’m really conscious that all of these things like cancer treatments and dealing with the side effects of chemo, even in the last five or ten years have improved so much, and all of those improvements and greater targeting of treatment, have come about through trials.

“Some people think, what if I’m just on the placebo? However, no matter if you’re on the trial medication or the placebo, you are on a standard of care that is currently the best treatment for you.

“The advantage of the trial for me, and I only speak for myself, is that I’m seen every three months by an oncologist, I get physical examination and speak to a nurse and every six months I have full bloods done.

“That’s in addition to all the regular follow ups as a regular post cancer patient. After having treatment every day I think I probably would have found it quite odd to walk out the door on my last day of radiotherapy, so I just find knowing I’m going in every three months reassures me.

“It’s not that I lay awake at night worrying about a recurrence or anything, but at the same time I feel there are people out there looking out for me and checking. Of course, everyone who is a cancer patient has people looking out for them in their follow up, but this just gives me that extra sense of security.”

She continues, “I would encourage anyone who is advised that they are eligible to take part in a trial to consider it, read the information available and ask questions of the clinical trials team. My experience has been very positive and I have felt really looked after.”

Reflecting on the impact of cancer, and her achievements in life to date, Sarah says,

“I am not sure how much cancer has changed how I live my life except that I am much more conscious of two things – first, how incredibly lucky I am in the people I have in my life and the care available to me, and, second, how much tougher I am than I thought I was.”

“I think I have definitely gotten better at not sweating the small stuff and having a better perspective on what’s really a crisis. Getting through cancer treatment has definitely been a highlight of my life but it’s not my achievement – it’s the achievement of the fantastic doctors, nurses, scientists and carers who looked after me and developed the treatments.”

As for the future, Sarah has some exciting plans on the horizon, representing Ireland on the international scene.

“I am a diplomat by profession and it’s a job I love, so representing Ireland at home and abroad is what I want to keep doing in the years ahead.”

Sarah’s clinical trial, Add Aspirin, is funded by the Irish Cancer Society. Cancer Trials Ireland is organising its “Just Ask” free webinar on clinical trials to mark International Clinical Trials Day on Friday May 20, from 2-3pm. To register, email info@cancertrials.ie, or to download its “Just Ask” cancer clinical trials booklet, visit www.cancertrials.ie
The webinar will feature a presentation from clinical trial expert, Professor Seamus O’Reilly, (consultant medical oncologist and Vice Clinical Lead Cancer Trials Ireland) on how trials work and how to access them, while previous trial participants will share their experiences on what to expect.

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