Tackling cancer: 'I’ve had a lot of surgeries — Dad and I were a tag team'

Katherine Dolphin Griffin and her beloved father underwent cancer treatment at the same time. In honour of his memory and to raise funds for cancer research, she is in the process of writing a book
Tackling cancer: 'I’ve had a lot of surgeries — Dad and I were a tag team'

CLOSE CONNECTION: Katherine Dolphin Griffin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer while caring for her father who had throat cancer. Pictures: David Keane

Katherine Dolphin Griffin was six months pregnant with her son when her beloved dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in February 2008. “My life fell apart. I felt my bump drop,” says the now 46-year-old mum of two.

Katherine was always a daddy’s girl and had a particularly strong connection with dad Joe from the age of 16 when her mother left home. “She left unexpectedly from my point of view,” she recalls, describing how she then took on the role of woman of the house. “I had four brothers — one older, he was 18. The youngest was 11. Our house was like a community centre. There could be 10 boys around the table and I’d be feeding them. They called me ‘the sister’.” 

At college in Britain – where Joe sent her so she “could have a college life” away from home — Katherine would help her brothers with homework over the phone. “I came home much more than my peers did. I’d come for parent-teacher meetings and to lift the house.” 

Now living near Midleton with her husband Maurice and children Mia, 17, and Colin, 13, Katherine says she chose the location of her home so she could be close to her dad. “So I could mind him when he got old. He never got old — he died at 69.”

 But on that February day in 2008, she couldn’t have predicted her then 60-year-old father would get four more cancer diagnoses – in 2011 and in 2014 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his throat, and in 2016 with separate cancers, one in the throat, another in the stomach. “He was a workaholic, he didn’t drink or smoke, he was the happiest man alive, such a strong character.”

 Nor did she ever suspect that right in the middle of his cancer journey, she herself would be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in December 2012. “I never thought I’d get cancer. His wasn’t hereditary. We both had cancer of the throat but they were two different cancers.” 

Cancer diagnosis 

Katherine first discovered her issues after a pupil asked her to go to the doctor for a croaky throat.
Katherine first discovered her issues after a pupil asked her to go to the doctor for a croaky throat.

A primary school teacher, it was a pupil in her class who first waved the red flag that her hoarse, croaky voice needed checking out. “I’d lost my voice temporarily in class. This little boy said ‘your voice sounds really funny — you need to go to the doctor’.”

 Putting it down to tiredness — from juggling work, her dad’s care and parenting two young children – Katherine visited her GP, who said ‘you’ve a fine lump on your right side’. Katherine’s observation that it was “just a swollen gland” was met with ‘I don’t think so’. 

The GP referred her to a consultant otolaryngologist who did an internal examination and concluded he couldn’t see anything sinister but sent her for an ultrasound.

At her appointment, she was surprised medics wanted to look at her left side too. “I knew they’d seen something else. They actually saw two tumours.” 

Biopsy of each indicated no cancer and her consultant suggested partial thyroidectomy — the tumour on her right side was large and pressing on her voice box. “He said I could have more surgery in a few years if the smaller tumour on the left grew. I decided to have one operation rather than two, so I had a full thyroidectomy, which removed my thyroid and the two tumours growing out of it.” 

Just over two weeks later, at her post-surgery check-up, Katherine was grateful she’d made this decision — more detailed investigation of the removed organ had shown papillary thyroid cancer, which is slow-growing and has a high cure rate.

Thyroid cancer affects more than 250 people in Ireland annually. It is more common in women and in those aged over 40. In 2018-2020, the incidence of thyroid cancer was 73 (males) and 179 (females). Katherine has no idea why she got it. “They said I was quite young. I was planning a third child. I was the youngest they’d come across at the time, though I’ve heard of others since.” 

Following surgery, she had radioactive iodine therapy. This meant taking a radioactive tablet to soak up any thyroid cells still remaining post-surgery and — in a foretaste of Covid-19 — going into an isolation unit in CUH for one week in February 2013. “You get your food through a hatch — you stand behind a line on the ground. They put a nuclear gun through the hatch to check the rays. When they’re down to a certain level you’re allowed home” 

Once home, Katherine had to take precautions to avoid any danger of radioactivity to others. “You’re not allowed to sleep in the same bed as someone else for five to six weeks. My husband would lock me in the spare room so the children couldn’t come in. I’m a real hugger – not being able to hug my children was so hard.”

 She was then prescribed Eltroxin, a replacement therapy when thyroid hormones are deficient. She’ll be on it for life. “My daily dose is low to prevent thyroid cancer from recurring. This leads to hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid.” 

She expects menopause to be tricky. “Hypothyroidism can reduce bone density — and low levels of thyroid hormones also increase risk of heart disorders.” 

Additional health issues

Katherine has had it tough since her cancer treatment, with each successive year bringing a new health issue. She has had her gallbladder removed — and her fallopian tubes. She has been diagnosed with uterine conditions including endometriosis and fibroids and with coeliac disease. Her bowel stopped working in 2017 and she’s on the drug Resolor. 

Diagnosed with hearing loss, she wears hearing aids. She has had several kidney stones and two years ago had chronic TMJ, a condition affecting the jaw joints, for which she had Botox injections in the head and scalp. She says there’s no apparent link between these issues and her thyroid cancer. “I’ve had a lot of surgeries — Dad and I were a tag team.” 

Did it help her, or her dad, that they were both dealing with cancer in the same timeframe? Were they companions on a gruelling journey? “We didn’t need cancer to understand each other,” she says. “We always understood each other. We got each other. As a child, I used to sit in his office and copy his signature.” 

When he died on World Cancer Day in February 2017, the grief “levelled” her. “He was my first phone call in the morning, my last at night — I had to re-train myself not to phone him. I had to re-train myself not to look for his silhouette in the window when I went to the clothesline.” 

Today her grief is “beside” her rather than “on top” of her. She believes dealing with life’s challenges doesn’t have to be the end of the world, as long as you have hope. She’s grateful to have had no surgeries in the past year. “I’m getting my health on track. My stamina is returning. I said to my husband, if I get to 12 months with no diagnosis of anything, I’ll do something for cancer research. I volunteered for a game of tag rugby, a fundraiser for a boy with cancer.” 

Saying yes to opportunities 

 Katherine Dolphin-Griffin, at her home in Midleton, Co Cork.
Katherine Dolphin-Griffin, at her home in Midleton, Co Cork.

She wants to be a good role model for her teenage children. “They’ve asked ‘have we Dad’s genes or yours?’ She wants to “earn back her track record” with her kids and show them there are different kinds of strength.

A dedicated teacher, she has returned to work five days a week. And she’s saying yes to invitations she had to turn down over the past decade, like going to Dubai for a week with her friends. “My husband said ‘you can have surgery, but you can’t go away with the girls?’ He told me to ‘choose for a change’ and go off for a week.” 

Her spirit and optimism are encapsulated in the connection she feels with dresses. “I love dresses. As a child, they made me female, made me stand out from the boys. Dresses are armour for me. I have pain every day but when I put on a dress nobody sees my pain, nobody sees the scars. Dresses make me feel beautiful, in control.”  And her innate resolve to engage fully in life has seen her star – in a Ted Baker dress — in a VHI TV ad that has run across all major channels since 2017.

But Katherine has unfinished business with cancer. Knowing a particular cancer drug would launch in October 2016, her dad “dragged himself” to that date. “But it was too late for him — he needed it the previous February,” she says.

Now she’s on a mission: to help increase the number of survivors by fundraising for cancer research in her dad’s honour. “I don’t have the stamina to climb mountains. So my husband said: ‘Write, about what you know and what you’ve been through’.” 

The book she’s writing includes 15 essays, “honest raw accounts of my journey” — each tells the story of a struggle she has experienced, as well as the tools she used to overcome it.

Katherine is currently doing a publishing course to self-publish her book, all in a bid to keep costs low. Proofreading, editing, illustrations, and the book cover have all been sponsored. She is now looking for support with printing costs so that all book proceeds can go to cancer research, Marymount Hospital and Hospice.

She plans to launch Hope to Cope on World Cancer Day, February 4, 2022, her dad’s fifth anniversary. 

  • See: www.instagram.com/my.hope.to.cope.story/; email ka75griffin@gmail.com.

What is thyroid cancer?

The thyroid is a gland at the base of the neck, just below the Adam's apple. It sits on top of the windpipe, below the voicebox (larynx).

Thyroid cancer happens when cells in the thyroid change and start to grow in an abnormal way. 

Main symptoms:

  • Lump in neck (painless or painful), which gradually gets bigger.
  • Difficulty in swallowing or breathing.
  • Changes to voice, including hoarseness.

These symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer. Most lumps in front of the neck are not cancer but it’s still important to go to the GP and get any unusual changes checked out.

Risk factors:

The cause of thyroid cancer is unknown but risk factors that can increase chances of developing it include:

  • Age — most cases occur in people over 40.
  • Gender — women are more at risk than men.
  • Certain benign thyroid diseases, for example, enlarged thyroid (goitre), thyroid nodules (adenomas) or inflamed thyroid (thyroiditis).
  • Low level of iodine in the diet. Iodine is found in a range of foods including fish, milk, dairy products and eggs.
  • Family history — you’re more at risk if a family member has had medullary thyroid cancer.
  • Inherited faulty gene,  for example, the RET gene may cause medullary thyroid cancer and the bowel condition, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) may lead to thyroid cancer.

Overactive or underactive thyroid does not increase the risk of developing thyroid cancer.

Having a risk factor doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. People with no risk factors also get it. If worried, talk to your GP or call Irish Cancer Society 1800 200700.

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