LAST December, days after their daughter Holly's first birthday, parents Martin and Mary O'Keeffe noticed a small swelling on the side of their daughter's eye.
She wasn't in any pain and the concern seemed unwarranted but, being protective of their second child, the couple brought her to their local GP and to Cork University Hospital, who explained they had no reason to worry.
By March, the swelling had yet to disappear, so the couple asked the same doctors to check their daughter again.
A day later, still numb at the diagnosis, they travelled from Tower in Cork to the oncology unit at Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, the specialist's words ringing in their ears.
Holly has three cancerous tumours, the largest of which, on her kidney, is the size of a small grapefruit.
Two more have been found behind her eye socket and behind her cheekbone.
The neuroblastoma cancer has spread to her bone marrow and is attacking her nervous system. Their 16-month-old daughter, the doctors said, must start chemotherapy immediately and has just a one-in-three chance of survival.
'The first month in hospital her eyes really swelled out, she'd only let her mam near her,' Martin, a former European karate champion originally from Mayfield, explained.
'When we brought her to the doctors they said she's fine, it's just how the baby's head grows, the bones aren't knitted together.
'When we came back they just looked at her and knew exactly what was going on. We thought it was an eye infection or something. That was a Tuesday; that Wednesday we were sent straight to Crumlin for tests. It's an awful shock to the system.'
For the past two months, Holly has undergone intense doses of chemotherapy every 10 days in an attempt to beat the cancer threatening her life.
Initial bilateral bone marrow results last week have confirmed there has been some progress but, aged just 16 months, she still just has a 25%-30% chance of survival. As a result of the added responsibility, Martin has had no option but to temporarily give up his job at a local bar and while the couple have some money saved, they admit they are struggling.
Neighbours have organised raffles, table quizzes and runners for the Cork marathon in an attempt to raise funds for the O'Keeffe's, who have said any additional funds will be given directly to specialist cancer services in Cork and Dublin. The first stage of Holly's treatment will end in just over a month.
There is a possibility that the cancer could at that stage be under control, that the O'Keeffes' waking nightmare could be over, but the more likely scenario is that Holly is facing the prospect of more chemotherapy, more surgery, more treatment for a condition threatening her young life.
*Information on making a donation to the Holly O'Keeffe fund is available at www.thehollyfund.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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