Personal Insights: A cancer diagnosis at 16 is just not in life's script

In our latest Personal Insights, Fiona Cooney, reflects on what was a defining moment in her life.

Personal Insights: A cancer diagnosis at 16 is just not in life's script

I recently turned 36. This particular age doesn’t normally call for any major celebrations. However for me it represents a rather significant milestone.

It's been twenty years since I was diagnosed with cancer. I was a few days shy of my sweet sixteenth when life as I knew it came to a grinding halt. Up until that point, my main concerns had been on par with the average angst-ridden teenager.

I often worried that my increasingly awkward appearance separated me from other girls. I just wanted to fit in. The idea of standing out terrified me.

My impending illness certainly amplified that fear. I can remember the exact moment I found out that something was wrong. I was a devoted gymnast at the time and had just finished a training session. My dad was outside, waiting to pick me up.

The evening carpool had become an integral part of our relationship. I was a self-confessed daddy’s girl back then. I relished any opportunity to have him all to myself. On this occasion he seemed distracted. His entire demeanor was different. I could tell something was on his mind. I wasn’t wrong

"The doctor rang” he said. “You have to go back to see him tomorrow. Something has shown up in your blood test”. I spent the next week being poked and prodded by a team of medical specialists. They soon discovered that I had ovarian cancer, a rare diagnosis for someone my age.

Initially I was more concerned with what the disease would do to my physical appearance. Would I lose my Rapunzel-like hair? Would my peers at school be able to tell that I was sick?

All I knew for sure was that a tumour the size of a tennis ball had made itself at home on my right ovary. Worst case scenario- the cancer had spread to my other organs. In order to rule that out I had to have a CT scan.

The most traumatic part of the scan was the chalk-like solution I had to drink beforehand. I was half way through the required dosage when my stomach decided it could take no more. In a scene reminiscent of “The Exorcist” I began to projectile vomit. This meant starting the process all over again.

I eventually completed the scan, but my fate couldn’t be revealed until doctors had sufficient time to review the results. While we waited my mum treated me to a stack of celeb magazines. I spent the next 2 hours trying to distract myself by reading stories about Britney Spears, and my other teen idols.

When the verdict was finally in, there was good and bad news. The bad news was that the tumour was malignant, which meant I definitely had cancer. The good news was that it appeared to be contained. But no guarantees could be made until the mass was safely removed.

I was presented with two possible scenarios: a full hysterectomy, and or chemotherapy. Tears streamed down my face as I begged the surgeons not to rob me of my womanhood. I told them I’d rather die than be left unable to conceive. They too became emotional, insisting that they wish there were other options. The plan was to operate immediately. Ever the procrastinator, I suggested we wait. I was within days of my 16th birthday, I didn’t want to spend it in hospital.

My bid to delay the inevitable was firmly rebuffed. I soon found myself sitting anxiously on a hospital bed, waiting to be brought down to theatre. The time had come to bid a not-so fond farewell to my tumour.

I was plagued by a relentless sense of dread and fear. What news would I wake up to? How much pain was I going to be in? Would I have a big scar? These were just some of the questions occupying my head-space.

My fear quickly transitioned into sadness. I had a brief moment to say goodbye to my parents before being wheeled out of the room. It was the first time I could recall seeing my mum & dad cry. I was asked to count down from 10 as the anesthetic was administered. I don’t think I made it past 7 before it was lights out.

When my eyes reopened, I was immediately hit with a wave of raw, intense pain. I was warned that the surgery would be invasive, but this was beyond anything I could have anticipated. I felt like my abdomen had literally been ripped open. The epidural they gave me provided next to no relief. I wanted to scream but I was too weak.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the silhouette of a blonde woman approaching. As she came closer I realised it was my mum. I had never been happier to see her. She was smiling, I took that as a good sign. Mum leaned in and whispered “you’re going to be fine, and by the way your uterus is perfect”.

I began to cry tears of relief, before passing out again. Surgeons had managed to remove the tumour in its entirety, without performing a hysterectomy. They told me that I was one of the lucky ones. For the time being I wouldn’t need any further treatment.

It was the best possible outcome, however I was too traumatised to fully appreciate it. The operation had taken its toll on my body. I quickly discovered just how much I relied on my stomach muscles for basic movement. I couldn’t walk, wash myself or even sit up. I pretty much reverted back to infancy, depending on my mum for everything. Luckily, she stepped up in ways I could never have imagined.

Despite being cancer-free, I still spent the next few years constantly in and out of hospital. Doctors kept a close eye on my condition, looking for any signs of a re-occurrence. I couldn’t help but feel like I was living on borrowed time. I was convinced the cancer was going to come back and finish what it started. I was also dealing with a serious bout of survivor guilt.

It’s been 20 years since my operation. The huge cancer cloud that once hovered over me has since dissolved. My mortality is no longer at the forefront of my everyday concerns. The significance of this anniversary has incited some seriously overdue reflection. I admit that I don’t always give my second chance at life the respect it deserves.

My story could have ended at 16. If my mum hadn’t been so observant, and insisted I see a doctor, I wouldn’t be here today. Ovarian cancer is considered a silent killer. By the time you notice any symptoms it’s usually too late. Thankfully doctors acted swiftly, giving me the chance to grow up and experience adulthood.

If I’m fortunate enough to have another 20 years on this earth, I don’t want to spend them being complacent. Revisiting my brush with cancer has reminded me of how lucky I am.

There are people out there desperately fighting to hold on to something that I take for granted.

"You don't have to find out you're dying to start living". (Sobiech, 2013)

The author, Fiona Cooney
The author, Fiona Cooney

- Fiona Cooney is a journalism graduate with a passion for writing human interest pieces.

Fiona's submission is part of a digital initiative on irishexaminer.com called Personal Insights.
As part of the Personal Insights initiative we are asking readers, creative writing groups and writing enthusiasts in general to share personal essays chronicling an experience which has impacted their lives and any learnings from that life experience they would like to share with a wider audience.
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