'There’s a life before cancer and a life after': Two women share their experiences

This Daffodil Day, we talk with two women whose shock cancer diagnosis last year changed their lives
'There’s a life before cancer and a life after': Two women share their experiences

Rachel Mallon from Balbriggan who was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year. Photograph Moya Nolan

SOMETIMES, despite doing everything we’re told will keep us healthy and well, cancer strikes. This can be terrifying and difficult to understand. Vigilance is key and having the courage to listen to your own body and speak up even when there are none of the usual symptoms is vital.

Last summer Rachel Mallon, a 34-year-old mum of two from Balbriggan in Dublin was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“I have never missed a smear. It’s funny because if you asked me to get my cholesterol checked or something like that, I’d probably put it off, but for some reason, I’m always really on top of my smear tests. That’s why when this one came back abnormal, I wasn’t worried because I know that it usually takes years of abnormal smears to turn into something serious.

“I tested positive for HPV and abnormal cells and I remember that my nurse rang with the results instead of getting the letter which I thought was strange. I was referred for a colposcopy and got an appointment quickly. I still wasn’t too worried. I thought I’d go in for the appointment, they’d sort me out and that would be it. But I had a feeling in the room, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Three days later I saw the hospital number come up on my phone and I knew.

“Thankfully, even with hospital restrictions, I was allowed to bring my husband to the appointment where they told me I had cervical cancer. Everything happened so fast then. My smear results were on May 25, I was diagnosed on June 22, then on the week of July 5, I had my MRIs, PET scans, bloods and I was booked in for a full hysterectomy on the following Friday.”

 Rachel Mallon
Rachel Mallon

Rachel was shocked and had some setbacks when her surgery scar reopened, and she got an infection, but she never resented what happened to her and is mindful that had her cervical screening appointment not been for a few years the outcome could have been very different.

“I just wanted to get through it. My girls were aged seven and nearly six at the time and I remember thinking that I was beyond lucky. I thought of Vicky Phelan and all the women of the CervicalCheck scandal... there have been huge mistakes made but, in this instance, my smear did save my life.”

Rachel, who works in the Passport Office in Balbriggan, needed no further treatment as her cancer was caught early. She says she’s grateful to the Irish Cancer Society for its helpful information.

 Rachel Mallon
Rachel Mallon

‘There’s a life before cancer and a life after cancer’

Mum of two Gillian Ryan from Bandon had an adverse reaction to her second Covid-19 vaccine which resulted in her having a biopsy on her lung the day before her 40th birthday last year.

“I was quite sick after my second shot and ended up going to hospital thinking it was a reaction. They did scans and found a nodule on my lung. They weren’t concerned, they thought it was an old infection scar but
the day before my 40th
birthday in November, I went for a biopsy, and a week later I was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“When they found it, they booked me for surgery and I spent Christmas in hospital away from my children who are 14 and 17, which was really hard.

“They removed the top right section of my lung and it’s been tough. Usually, I’d be in the gym four or five times a week and walking or running at least 10K every night. 

Now I can barely make it upstairs. I’m out of breath. There’s a life before cancer and a life after cancer.

“There’s also a financial impact to it all that people never talk about. They speak about the emotional or the physical side of things, but work doesn’t pay you when you’re off long term and I could be off for up to a year. It is what it is, but it’s another thing to deal with. “ 

Because of Covid-19 restrictions, Gillian went to the hospital to get her results on her own.

“I thought they were going to tell me I had asthma, or I needed to slow down fitness-wise. I was completely floored. I had no idea, no indication that it could be this. It is awful to get that kind of news on your own, and then get into your car and drive 20 miles home trying to face the road in front of you without crashing, because you’ve just been given the worst news of your life.

“I had never been fitter or healthier but now every pain I get I’m worried that it’s cancer. If someone had asked me for my five-year plan before all this, I’d have said travel but now it’s to stay alive,” says Gillian, who needed no additional treatment following surgery and is waiting for some follow-up scans.

“I’d say to anybody that has a cough that lasts longer than a few weeks to go and get it checked. If you’ve shortness of breath, if you’re dizzy, get checked. I knew something was wrong, but I genuinely thought it was the vaccine, because I’ve never been sick, I’ve never been in a hospital for anything. I’ve barely been on an antibiotic in my whole life. I knew that there was something, but by God, I didn’t think it was this.”

  • Today is Daffodil Day, a fundraiser supporting those affected by cancer. To donate, see cancer.ie/daffodilday

Women's Health Initiative

Two new clinics in Cork and Dublin have started operating as part of the Irish Cancer Society’s Women’s Health Initiative. They aim to improve the health and wellbeing for women cancer survivors at all stages of their cancer journey and bridge the gap in the identification and management of symptoms and side effects for women after cancer treatment.

The Cork clinic, the ‘Women’s Cancer Survivorship: Supporting and Innovating for Change’ programme, is led by medical oncologist Professor Roisin Connolly at Cork University Hospital.

“Essentially, this is an extra layer over and above what we usually offer. The patients are people who have had either breast cancer or a gynaecological cancer and have finished the majority of what we call their primary treatments and are moving into the follow-up phase.

“In that phase, we usually see patients in our clinic to see how they are, if they have any side effects, and how we can support them. But in reality, those follow-up visits happen in very busy medical clinics and so there’s not always the time to give people the best support.”

The new clinic will see patients meet with a nurse specialist and a dietitian who will monitor and deal with symptoms that sometimes don’t come up in the usual follow-up appointments.

Professor Connolly splits her time equally between CUH and UCC. It’s an unusual position that allows her the time to plan projects like this one, the first of its kind in Ireland.

“It’s very rare, you could probably count on one hand the number of oncologists here who have protected time for research and that’s why I took this position in Cork, because it would give me that opportunity. Planning things like this [The Women’s Health Initiative] is impossible unless you have people who have the time to do it.”

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