Examine Yourself: Cancer at 13 is not easy

Examine Yourself: Cancer at 13 is not easy

Leah Murphy was diagnosed with cancer when she was 13. She says it's not easy finding out as a teenager but tells Ciara McDonnell that you have to persevere.

WHEN I was thirteen, and just starting second year of secondary school, I was diagnosed with a parotid tumour, which is cancer of a salivary gland. I had rarely been out sick from school, and I had been very active. What appeared to be a severe ear infection then appeared to be an infection in my salivary glands, and then turned out to be a tumour.

I got sick in the autumn of 2013. I had my first appointment with my consultant, Mr Patrick Sheahan, that September and they diagnosed it in November. They told me then that it was a cancer called acinic cell carcinoma. This kind of cancer is known as an ‘old man’s cancer’. It’s very rare for a teenage girl to get it. I was in the South Infirmary for surgery, and the team there were unbelievable, both before and after surgery.

The tumour was in my parotid gland, which is one of your main salivary glands. It’s behind your ear, in your neck. I was very specific with the surgical team. I wouldn’t let them cut my face — I didn’t want a huge scar — so they had to sprain my jaw to get the tumour.

Before the diagnosis, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. I knew that I was sick and I was in the hospital, but I didn’t know why. I think my parents were trying to protect me, and they didn’t give me any details that would frighten me. It was on a need-to-know basis. I’m glad of that now.

After the surgery, I was in hospital for four days and then I had to have two weeks off school. It was about six or seven weeks before I could carry my school bag or do PE again. I couldn’t eat properly for about six weeks and I was pretty sore. But I looked normal. I looked as though nothing had happened to me.

My close friends were all there to support me. Other people were a little standoff-ish, because they didn’t understand. Some of them didn’t believe me, because I didn’t look different. Some were shocked and maybe a little bit frightened.

My family and friends were brilliant, in making sure I was doing okay. CanTeen, the support group for young people who have or have had cancer, was wonderful, too. It was such a great help to meet people who had similar experiences, and feel like they understood what I was going through.

It can be quite isolating. It was a scary time, but I did have people there to help me get through it. For any teenager who is dealing with a new diagnosis, I would say firstly: it’s ok. I know it’s scary. Seek out support from groups like CanTeen. Even if you think it won’t be for you, there is nothing like meeting and talking with people who are going through what you are going through. Just connecting with other people, and realising that you are not by yourself, is really helpful.

I went to Coláiste an Phiarsaig, in Glanmire, and they were extremely supportive. I had to miss school for appointments and check-ups, but the teachers were all really understanding, and didn’t push me when I missed out. 

My class teacher during the year was Nora Blake and she went above and beyond to make sure I was getting on ok. She was wonderful. 

After my recovery period, I went back to normal school life, just as it was before. I did my Junior and Leaving Certificates and I am now at UCC, pursuing a course that I love. I’m 18 now, and I’m doing a Bachelor of Arts and World Languages at UCC, so I’m doing Irish, Spanish, and Chinese and it is brilliant.

It is not easy to be diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, but my advice to anyone who has been newly diagnosed is to persevere. You’ll be fine. I know that everything seems like it is up in the air after a diagnosis, and there is an unreality to the situation. Get through what you can, do your best, and that’s all you can do. 

CanTeen is a nationwide support group for young people between the ages of 12 and 25, who have, or who have had, cancer. The organisation’s aims are to support, empower, and develop young people who have been affected by cancer. It gives them the opportunity to meet up in a relaxed, informal setting.

Membership is free and members are asked to only give a small contribution to weekends away.

- www.canteen.ie

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