With half of us heading for a cancer diagnosis, we need to support Daffodil Day, writes Arlene Harris.
By the year 2020 it is estimated that one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives.
March 24 is Daffodil Day and the Irish Cancer Society is urging the public to become aware of the risks associated with developing the disease and to support research into future treatments by fundraising or volunteering on or around the day itself.
— Irish Cancer Society (@IrishCancerSoc) March 16, 2017
Celebrities like Des Bishop and Bobby Kerr, who have survived cancer, are urging everyone to support the cause.
James Rowan has survived cancer, and like thousands of others around the country is only too aware of the need to understand how this disease develops and what symptoms to look out for.
He was diagnosed with lymphoma when he was a teenager and although the signs were there for months, he neglected to tell his parents as he had no idea what was wrong.
“I first noticed a lump no bigger than a pea on my neck when I was 14 while we were on holiday in Portugal,” he recalls.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time and never mentioned it to anyone. But as the months went by, I noticed it was getting bigger so I told my parents. They said I seemed unusually tired and appeared to be losing weight so decided to take me to the doctor.
“By this stage the lump had really grown to the size of a golf ball and my parents were right about me being tired as I would often go up to bed for a nap after I came home from school.
"So we told this to the GP who was brilliant and almost diagnosed me there. He said that he thought it could be Hodgkin’s lymphoma but couldn’t be sure until I had some tests done.”
Unfortunately the doctor’s intuition was right and James was admitted for further tests and then treatment to eradicate the cancer.
“My treatment started almost straight away and initially I spent a week in Crumlin getting my broviac line fitted. Then I had chemotherapy for eight months,” says the 32-year-old.
“I didn’t cope very well, to be honest — I was very angry and just wanted to forget all about it. I even asked my parents and doctor if I could just stop treatment because I wanted to die as it was just too difficult for me.
"Because not only was it mentally challenging but the physical sickness was dreadful. I wasn’t able to hold down any food, I had no energy and of course losing my hair was horrible, but thankfully my brothers and some friends all shaved their heads too so that really helped.”
Despite the gruelling treatment, James got through it and eventually came out the other side.
But his ordeal wasn’t over as five years later, he had a relapse and this time, it seemed more serious than the last.
“Although you never really get the all-clear with cancer, the five-year mark is a real achievement and doctors usually say when you get that far, you will be fine,” he says.
“But five years after I had finished my treatment, I went back for a routine check-up and they noticed a growth at the back of my stomach near my spine. It was in such an inaccessible place that they couldn’t do a biopsy but scans and blood tests confirmed my cancer had relapsed.
“I still remember the exact place I was standing when I got that phone call and it felt is if my life fell away in an instant. All the anger came back and the feeling of not wanting to make big decisions again — simply wishing it wasn’t true.”
Unfortunately for James it was true and there was more bad news to come. “The cancer had definitely returned and it was much stronger than they had initially thought,” he says.
“I was going to have to go through some very tough few months of high-dose chemotherapy. This was far worse than I expected and I really don’t know how the human body can survive it — the chemo is so strong that it destroys the stem cells in your body and immune system and I had to spend a month in isolation at St James’ Hospital and needed a stem cell transplant.
“Luckily, we were able to harvest my own stem cells before treatment began so that lowers the risk of other complications when they’re transplanted back. But during my treatment I went away for a few days and caught an infection which caused my health to deteriorate rapidly. I stubbornly wanted my own doctor so drove back to Dublin, not realising that I was quickly dying.”
James’s parents were waiting at home and drove him to hospital immediately.
“At this stage I couldn’t walk and was losing the ability to use my arms and legs as my body was shutting down — all the while being in the most agonising pain I have ever experienced.
“Thankfully the staff in St James’ Hospital acted swiftly and after lot of high dose antibiotics and a week in hospital, my life was saved. Doctors told me later that when I was admitted, I was literally an hour or two from death.”
Twelve years later, the memory of that episode remains painful but it is distant as James has recovered and is looking forward to a brighter future.
“There was a long road to recovery after the treatment — both physically and mentally, but today I’m doing really well,” he says. “It has totally changed me as a person — the first diagnosis made me miss a lot of my teenage years and the second time robbed me of my early 20s but now I’m doing my best to make up for it.”
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