WHILE it is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was, cancer is still an unwelcome disease which will affect one in three of us in our lifetime.
Eileen Rushe knows only too well how devastating a cancer diagnosis can be as in 2017, the 34-year-old received the unwelcome news that abnormal cells were picked up in her routine smear test. (CervicalCheck reopened its doors last week). Initially, she wasn’t unduly worried as she underwent LLETZ (large loop excision of the transformation zone) which removed the potentially pre-cancerous tissue.
But in December 2018, she haemorrhaged and was rushed to hospital where after tests it was discovered that she had a 5cm tumour in her cervix.
“Being admitted to hospital was very scary,” says Eileen who has a 13-year-old son called Seamus. “I had to stay there for two days as tests were being done but because my son’s dad had recently passed away, I was anxious to be discharged and get back to him. I went back to work (she works in pensions) even though I was still bleeding - but got a call a couple of days later to come back for results. I remember sitting on the bus and wondering what they were going to tell me.
“My brother lives near the hospital, so I called him, and he came with me – and I’m glad I did as I was not prepared to be told that I had cancer. Even though I was shocked, I didn’t cry as all I could think of was my son. I felt more angry than anything else as our family had already been through so much and I really didn’t think it was fair.”
Once the diagnosis was given, the Louth woman then had to wait for results to decipher what stage the cancer was at and what treatment would be necessary. She was given the stark news on Christmas Eve 2018 and began the long road to recovery at the beginning of last year.
“I didn’t want to tell Seamus until after Christmas so waited until the second week of January 2019 to start treatment,” she says.
“I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and it was quite aggressive, so I ended up being in hospital for seven weeks as I had to undergo chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy. It was a tough time and being away from Seamus [who was staying with family] was the most difficult but thanks to modern technology, we were able to talk by FaceTime every day.
“I was discharged at the end of March and was extremely tired. I couldn’t really do very much and had no energy, plus my digestive system was very affected from the treatment and I felt nauseous and generally unwell all of the time, right up until last autumn.
“I had a PET scan in May to see if the treatment had worked and I asked them to delay giving me the results as I had two weddings to attend and I really didn’t want to know the news beforehand, because it would have been terrible if it had been bad – but thankfully the results were great and they managed to get rid of all the cancer.”
But while the cancer was indeed eradicated, it's left her with ongoing difficulties. Eileen suffers from side effects and also the emotional turmoil of wondering whether or not the disease will return.
“Although the cancer is gone, I have had some lasting side effects,” she says.
I now suffer from infertility and incontinence which I will have for life. My bowel and kidneys were affected, and I always have to be close to a bathroom. This isn’t going to change so I have to learn how to deal with it
"I also went straight into menopause and my vagina closed up as if the skin had been burnt. I have been advised to use gels and hormone treatments as well as a dilator, but the menopausal symptoms have also made the situation worse.
“I also suffer from night sweats and sleepless nights and am on HRT. I am very young to be going through the menopause, which has made me infertile. Although I am not looking to be in a relationship and am very blessed with my wonderful son, it is a weird feeling to know that I cannot have any more children.
“Also, aside from the physical side effects, I am constantly worrying about the cancer coming back. I had a lower back pain which felt like some of the cancer symptoms I had initially, and this was very worrying. I really want to trust my body but it’s so hard not to get worried about aches and pains – but I am hopeful that this will lessen in time.”
Despite all she has been through in the past couple of years, Eileen is positive about the future and says the support she received during her treatment and beyond was second to none which is why she is encouraging anyone affected by cancer to seek out their nearest Daffodil Centre and support the programme in any way they can.
“I would encourage anyone who has just been diagnosed with cancer to trust their doctor and medical team,” she says. “I was very lucky that I really liked my doctors and took on board what they said. I would discourage people from googling symptoms as there are so many different types of cancers and treatments – everyone is different and doctors will treat each patient accordingly – so listen to your body, be kind to yourself and take any help which is offered.
“I would also advise people to seek psychological help as a cancer diagnosis is a lot for anyone to take on. There are free counselling services available from cancer centres as well as support groups which can offer great advice on side effect management. The support I received from the ICS and the Daffodil Centre was invaluable and I really feel like I wouldn’t have got through it so well without them.”
For more information see: www.cancer.ie
ABOUT CERVICAL CANCER
• It is a cancer of the cells lining your cervix.
• In Ireland an average of 25 women every year are diagnosed with the disease and it is the second most common female cancer in Europe.
• Cervical cancer takes a long time to develop and often has no symptoms, which is why regular screening is crucial.
• The main treatments for cervical cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
• The side-effects depend on the type of treatment you get, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue.
• Some treatments may cause long-term problems like infertility or difficulty having sex.