Niamh Morrison has a small tattoo under her wrist with Love, Faith, Hope written inside tiny colourful hearts.
This was the mantra which got her through a lung cancer diagnosis, but she said it all started with a gut feeling there was something more seriously wrong than her first symptoms indicated.
Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in Ireland with about 2,430 diagnosed annually. The outcome depends on both the type of cancer a person has and when it is discovered.
In 2018, Ms Morrison was 36 and a fan of regular brisk walks around the parks in Limerick city, juggling two young children with a busy job in the charity sector.
However, that May, she became someone who struggled to walk up the nearby hill to Thomond Park. Her energy levels dipped and she was gripped by bouts of heartburn which glass after glass of milk could not lessen.
She said: “I had a hoarse voice, I’d never had a sore throat before. I was losing weight. The whole time, I just didn’t feel like myself. I never had a cough or anything though.”
- - Doctors are calling on people to get in touch and ask about changes in their health
- - An Irish oncologist tells the European Parliament Covid-19's impact on cancer services is devastating
With a history of diabetes in her family, she became worried about this possibility and tried to book an appointment with her GP for assessment.
However, there were no appointments for two weeks. Ms Morrison put down the phone and decided she could not wait, she needed more urgent help.
She went to the pharmacist and told him everything. She asked how she could control her symptoms for a few more weeks, but he had a better suggestion.
“I was telling him how I was feeling, and as I went on and on he said a new GP had started nearby,” she said.
At that point, Ms Morrison did not know you can go to a doctor who is not your own family doctor. And luckily as this doctor was new, her appointment books were open.
Within weeks, Ms Morrison was at University Hospital Limerick getting scans and X-rays of her lungs.
In June, she was diagnosed with both diabetes and lung cancer, hearing the final confirmation of lung cancer when she was already in the hospital with pneumonia.
“I was really still expecting diabetes. I was shocked, I couldn’t really believe it was lung cancer. I thought that was something for older people in their 60s and 70s,” she said.
Ms Morrison was told it was ‘non-smoke-related cancer’. She never asked what stage it was, she knows the lesion they found on her lungs was 5mm and she knows they took it out. That is enough for her.
That operation was in September 2018. Her children, then aged just seven and five, stayed in Limerick while she was in St James Hospital in Dublin for a week.
She said: “Dr Ronan Ryan was the one who told me they got everything, I was so delighted, I threw my arms around him. You wouldn’t be able to do that now.”
Ms Morrison still gets regular scans, but no longer has to go to Dublin as a clinic runs in Limerick now to help reduce travel around the country.
Back then, she told very few people what she was going through, but now she thinks it is better to talk about cancer and reduce people’s fears.
“I didn’t talk to a lot of people about being sick, I used the Irish Cancer Society website, you can log on and read stories from other people who have cancer,” she said.
She relied on support groups through UHL and the Cancer Society, and said she always found someone to call on.
Now, however, Ms Morrison openly tells friends to get checked if they have a cough, and has become braver about asking people to stop smoking or at least smoke far away from her.
“I would say listen to your body, early detection is the best way to get going with treatment, you have to listen to yourself really,” she said.
“Don’t put things on the long finger, always remember to have love, hope, and faith.”
A cancer diagnosis is frightening but the message from the HSE for World Cancer Day is that knowing what to look for and getting an early diagnosis can really help.
Doctors and GPs are urging people to come and see them despite the on-going pandemic and to remember to list all their symptoms during the initial telephone consultations.
For #WorldCancerDay join a free public webinar on “Food for thought: Eating to Reduce Cancer Risk” on 4th February @ 13:00. Hosted by the Irish Cancer Prevention Network and @trust_indi. Register here: https://t.co/2GHt8gW0lW pic.twitter.com/a1bAgKpP0F— HSE Ireland (@HSELive) February 1, 2021
Dr Una Kennedy, GP advisor to the HSE’s National Cancer Control Programme, said referrals for cancer diagnosis went into a “sharp decline” at the start of the pandemic but have been recovering.
She said the latest figures on referrals for prostate cancer showed it is at 90% of the number at the same time in 2019.
“The concern and the question now is whether people are coming in at a sufficiently early stage. Everybody knows you have got to pick up cancer early,” she said.
"It is really important to pick it up early.”
Cancers are different, with a range of symptoms which people can watch out for at home, she said.
A significant indicator for breast cancer is a lump or bump on the breast. She added that if anyone notices a lump on any part of the body which seems to be growing, that should be investigated.
Signs of bowel cancer include bleeding or blood in the faeces.
Dr Kennedy said:
This would include coughing up blood or for women bleeding in-between periods.
Another sign is unexpected weight loss, that is losing weight when you have not planned for this.
Another potential sign for some cancers is a cough which does not go away.
Dr Kennedy said people should always tell their GP about an unexplained cough even when the pandemic has subsided. Coughs can indicate lung problems other than Covid-19.
She said: “If you have a cough that is not going away, then you have to get checked out.”
People should not worry about bothering the doctor, she said, something patients often say to her when they come with an advanced illness.
“We can’t help people if we don’t know about them and we really want to help,” she said.
It could take a decade for cancer services to fully recover from the impact of Covid-19, according to a top oncologist.
Professor Seamus O’Reilly, oncologist at Cork University Hospital addresses the European Parliament today on the shocking impact of this virus for all patients.
“The problem with Covid is chaos; order has been replaced by chaos,” he told the. He will present on a new American modelling study which found a 10-year impact on cancer services based on a six-month shut-down.
Prof. O’Reilly said: “This is totally relevant for the Irish situation, this is why the vaccine programme is so important because it will restore normality.”
Treatment is often postponed now when nurses are re-assigned to Covid-19 wards or staff are on Covid-leave.
And patients are alone in facing these problems as they are more vulnerable to the virus.
“Covid is unique in that it brings isolation with it, there is a cruelty as patients need to constantly cocoon,” he said.
Prof. O’Reilly said cancer patients should be prioritised for vaccination. He is also worried about the changing interaction with patients due to increasing use of online technology.
Prof. O’Reilly said: “You don’t have contact with the patients, it is in the silence you learn more or you see someone’s eyes going to a relative when you mention something. Now even if we see someone, they come in alone.”
Crucial research into less common but virulent types of cancer, including brain or pancreatic cancer, has in some cases slowed, said Orla Dolan, CEO of Breakthrough Cancer Research (BCR).
They support research all over Ireland, and she said: “We have had some disruptions.”
In some cases, time-sensitive research was stopped when labs were closed, some researchers transferred to Covid-19 projects and even a simple thing like going to a hospital lab to collect samples became fraught with difficulty.
Despite this, 20 research projects were greenlit, and Dolan is hopeful a greater focus on research will encourage funding for scientists to work in teams as seen with the Covid-19 vaccines.
“Right now we are all sitting at home waiting for science to deliver a vaccine to us, that’s how cancer patients feel all the time,” she said.