Parents of Saoirse Ruane: 'As a family, we’ve had to fight a lot' 

The parents of Saoirse Ruane, who appeared in the ‘Toy Show’, open up about the serious medical issues their family has dealt with, from testicular cancer to secondary infertility and a life-threatening tumour. Sharon Ní Chonchúir reports
Parents of Saoirse Ruane: 'As a family, we’ve had to fight a lot' 

Saoirse Ruane stole our hearts when she appeared on The Late Late Toy Show last year. The nine-year-old from Athenry shyly shared the story of how she lost her right leg to cancer and giggled as she showed Ryan just how far she had come in learning to walk on her new prosthetic leg.

Her resilience runs in the family. Her father Ollie had testicular cancer in his early 30s, and both he and Saoirse’s mother Roseanna struggled with secondary infertility.

“As a family, we’ve had to fight a lot and been through immense pain,” says Roseanna. “But I strongly believe that speaking about it might encourage others to keep going when they experience their own struggles, fertility or otherwise.”

Ollie, 43, and Roseanna, 42, first met on April 17, 2006, a date that was to prove fateful for them. They got engaged the following year and booked their wedding day for April 17, 2009.

April 17, 2008, brought life-changing news for the couple. “Ollie got diagnosed with testicular cancer, so we pushed our wedding day out by six months,” says Roseanna. “He had surgery followed by chemotherapy and froze some sperm in between the two treatments, just in case his fertility was damaged in any way.”

They had already discussed having children. “We wanted a big family, a whole football team,” says Roseanna. “That was to turn out to be far more difficult than we imagined.”

They started trying for a baby soon after they married, and in January 2012, Saoirse was born. “We conceived naturally, which showed Ollie’s fertility was unaffected by his cancer treatment, but we didn’t realise until afterwards that Saoirse was in many ways a miracle baby,” says Roseanna.

“I had my appendix removed when I was seven and got peritonitis afterwards. I was in hospital for months and my parents were told I might never have children. They only told me that after Saoirse was born.”

Dealing with secondary infertility

Roseanna and Ollie Ruane with their children Saoirse (9) and Farrah Rose (2) at their home near Loughrea, County Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan
Roseanna and Ollie Ruane with their children Saoirse (9) and Farrah Rose (2) at their home near Loughrea, County Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

The Ruanes immediately wanted another baby. “We started trying again as soon as my body was ready,” says Roseanna. “Little did we know that it would take seven years and treatments at three different clinics for us to have Farrah Rose.”

HSE statistics show that one in six couples in Ireland experiences infertility. Primary infertility is when a couple is unable to get pregnant after a year of having regular unprotected sex. Secondary infertility is the inability to get pregnant after previously giving birth to a baby without any medical help. The Ruanes fell into the latter category.

According to Dr Hans Arce, medical director of ReproMed Fertility Clinic in Dublin and the consultant who treated Ollie and Roseanna, the causes and frequency of secondary infertility are similar to primary infertility. They are also treated the same way.

“Secondary infertility doesn’t necessarily have a better or worse prognosis and the same tools that are used for primary infertility apply,” he says. “Most patients struggling with infertility will succeed. There is plenty of help on the horizon and keeping yourself informed will ensure that you seek that help in due course, improving your chances of success.”

The Ruanes sought help after a year of unsuccessfully trying to conceive. They underwent scans and tests before embarking on intrauterine insemination. This treatment involved Ollie’s sperm (including some of the sperm he had frozen before his cancer treatment) being placed in Roseanna’s uterus precisely at ovulation.

They tried and failed three times. They then went down a less invasive route, working with fertility specialists to interpret biological markers to help them conceive naturally. “I was following my cycles, taking my temperature every morning, and deciding whether or not to have sex based on those factors,” says Roseanna.

They both found this challenging. “Let’s just say that it can take the romance out of it when you have to document everything throughout the cycle and act accordingly,” says Ollie, who is an engineer. By 2014, they were exhausted. “We parked it for a while and focused our energy on building our house,” says Roseanna.

Staying mum about IVF treatment

In 2017, they decided to try IVF and chose ReproMed in Dublin because their health insurance covered some of the costs. This meant early-morning trips across the country for blood tests and scans, trips that they chose to conceal from family and friends.

“The only person we told was my boss because I had to take time off work,” says Roseanna, who was working as a medical secretary at the time and is currently a full-time mother. “We kept our IVF treatment to ourselves because we didn’t want the pressure of other people knowing. Our thinking was that if we were successful, then we’d be in a position to share our story. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have to.”

They were full of hope for their first cycle in November 2017. “I’d it all planned out,” says Roseanna. “Pregnant in November, a baby the following September, and then months of maternity leave ahead.”

It was not to be. She developed ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome during treatment. This is when the ovaries become swollen and painful in response to the hormones injected during the IVF process.

“It was too dangerous to continue so we had to abandon that attempt,” says Roseanna. “That was unbelievably difficult as you invest so much of yourself in each cycle.”

They waited until after Christmas to try again, by which time they had conceived naturally. “We couldn’t believe it,” says Roseanna. “That was the first time that had happened in seven years.”

They were thrilled to hear the baby’s heartbeat at the eight-week scan. but by ten weeks the heartbeat stopped. “We were devastated,” says Roseanna. “Losing the baby we wanted so much was indescribable pain.”

They were determined to try once more. They started a new IVF cycle at the Dublin clinic in April 2018, did the transfer on the auspicious date of April 17, and became pregnant.

“Farrah Rose was born on New Year’s Day, 2019,” says Roseanna. “There may be a seven-year age gap, but there is such love between them.”

The year might have started with a celebration the Ruane family were facing one of their toughest medical battles before it ended. “In November, Saoirse started complaining of discomfort in her right leg,” says Roseanna. “We assumed she’d sprained it or something but when it hadn’t gone away after a week, we brought her to the GP, who referred her for an X-ray.”

The situation escalated quickly from there and in a matter of days, Saoirse was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. She had a rare, life-threatening tumour on her leg.

“The light went off that day and we went to a dark place,” says Roseanna. “I’ll never forget Ollie saying: ‘We spent seven years fighting to have another child and now, Saoirse might be taken from us’. We had yet another battle on our hands.”

Saoirse had ten months of chemotherapy before having her leg amputated on March 18, 2020. “I’ll never forget that lonely journey to Dublin,” says Roseanna. “Bringing your child to theatre knowing that those ten tiny toes she was born with would now only be five – I don’t think we’ll ever get over that.”

Emotional rollercoaster

Roseanna and Ollie Ruane with their children Saoirse (9) and Farrah Rose (2) at their home near Loughrea, County Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan
Roseanna and Ollie Ruane with their children Saoirse (9) and Farrah Rose (2) at their home near Loughrea, County Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

The Ruanes are forever changed by their family’s experience of cancer and secondary infertility. Roseanna and Ollie feel for all the couples currently struggling with fertility issues of their own.

“We believed we were well informed before we embarked on the process, but we weren’t prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that comes with it,” says Ollie. “It’s important to try to stay strong and to be understanding of how each person feels throughout the process.”

He felt he played a bystander’s role at times. “My part was easy, really,” he says. “But it was gruelling for Roseanna to go through all the injections and the knock-on hormonal effects prior to transfer.”

Their finances were impacted too - they spent a substantial figure on fertility treatment over seven years. “We had to make sacrifices, including missing lots of occasions and nights out,” says Roseanna. “We were in debt for a long time, all because we wanted a child so badly. The pain of having that debt to pay off added to the pain of not being able to conceive. And we were lucky: we had our child. But some couples go through it and come out with nothing. Their debt is a constant reminder of that loss.”

They hope their story will help others. “Infertility is such a private and painful part of people’s lives,” says Roseanna. “By speaking about it, I’d like to encourage others to keep going. I’m so glad we persevered, and I’d advise anyone out there who wants a baby to try all their options.”

Having children has made the struggles of recent years more bearable for Ollie and Roseanna. “As a family, we have had to fight a lot, from Ollie’s cancer diagnosis through seven years of infertility to Saoirse’s cancer diagnosis and the various treatments to save her life,” says Roseanna.

“In all those fights, we were so thankful to have Saoirse and Farrah Rose. Farrah Rose was a blessing in a very dark time, such a joy for us as a family. Most importantly, she helped Saoirse through her treatment and amputation.”

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