Beating The Big C: Three Women On Their Journeys To Recovery

Ahead of Daffodil Day on March 23rd, three Irish women tell their stories of beating cancer.

Heather Keating, 27, from Tipperary, is two years cancer-free and hopes to raise awareness for the HPV vaccine:

I was diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was 24. ​I had started bleeding between periods, but my GP reassured me that it was probably breakthrough bleeding due to being on the contraceptive pill. But months went by and I started to bleed after sex. I went back to my GP and requested a referral to a gynecologist, where biopsies were taken. I wasn’t concerned, I just wanted to be safe and get checked out. But when I got the news that I had cancer everything around me went black and white, life had no colour anymore. I wasn’t able to eat or hold a conversation. I felt trapped. I was happy to talk to my family and friends about it but no one knew what to say to me… really there was nothing they could say.

I was mostly concerned for my husband and parents – they’d have to go through this with me and if the worst happened, they‘d be the ones left to suffer. It was stage one, which was good news, and I was a candidate for a radical trachelectomy to remove my cervix and the tumour. It saved my life but came at the price of possibly losing my fertility. Two weeks after surgery I was told I was cancer free and that I wouldn’t need chemo or radiation. There are no words to describe how I felt, I just cried and hugged my surgeon. I’d gotten my life back! I’m now two years cancer-free. I recently got married and am enjoying life and the work that I do. I see my oncologist every three months to ensure everything’s okay and that the cancer has not returned. I’m one of the lucky ones, my treatment was short and I survived.

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is what causes cervical cancer, but it can be prevented with a simple vaccination given to girls before they reach adulthood. I was too old to get the vaccine when it became available. Before my diagnosis I’d only heard of it from friends who were considering having their daughters vaccinated.

Women need to know what to look out for, the symptoms of cervical cancer, and we need more awareness around smears. I was 24 when I was diagnosed so I’d never had a smear test as they become available free from 25 with Cervical Check, but because I listened to my body I was lucky enough to survive. The experience taught me that life is short and to appreciate it, to do what you love and to spend time with the ones you love.”

Lyndsey Connolly, 30, from Dublin had her eggs frozen pre-treatment so she can have children in the future:

“Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has specific symptoms and I didn’t have any of them. I was diagnosed by complete accident, an accident that saved my life. I’d been doing my masters while working full-time, so tI was exhausted. I thought I wouldn’t be so fatigued once I finished my course, but it didn’t go away and I started getting recurrent infections. Then I got the flu jab, and seven days later, I was in A&E with viral meningitis. My tumour had killed my immune system so my body couldn’t fight the flu injection and it travelled to my brain, resulting in meningitis.

The A&E doctor ordered a chest xray, something not routine for meningitis patients. It was that xray that picked up an ‘abnormality’. Four weeks later, I was told I had cancer.

I like the whole truth, the good, the bad and the ugly – it helps me deal better when I know what to expect. I’m very open and was fine talking about it, but it was harder for other people to talk about it… some people didn’t know what to say, so didn’t say anything and stopped being my friends. That’s something I struggled with. In saying that, those who’ve been with me from the start are incredible.

When I met my oncologist, I went into a weird sense of calm. We knew what it was and we had a plan – that was that. I didn’t realise the enormity of it until my first fertility appointment. My consultant pushed me to freeze my eggs, though I really hated the process. You go see a counsellor, you have many internal scans and you have to inject yourself with a course of hormones. I was asleep for the procedure, it was uncomfortable for a few days afterwards. You’re told as soon as you come around how many eggs they got – my number was 10, the most that’s usually viable. Although I hated it, I’m glad my consultant pushed it. I got my fertility tested a year post-treatment and was heartbroken to learn I can’t have children naturally. To know that I have my eggs is great. I’ve options, all because my consultant was proactive.

I’m doing good now, three and a half years in remission and feeling the best I’ve felt in ages. I’m just enjoying every day and making new memories. My favourite thing post-treatment has been getting on a plane and going on adventures!

Kim Hanly, 32, from Dublin, set up a support group for Irish women following her own battle with cervical cancer:

I first experienced symptoms when I was 25. It started with pelvic pain and spread around to my lower back. I then started to get irregular bleeding. As I was on the Depo injection for contraception, I didn’t get periods so I knew this bleeding wasn’t normal. When I was 26, I went to the doctor. He didn’t seem overly concerned and said the symptoms were because of my contraception. I didn’t believe him – I knew there was something wrong so decided to have my first smear. I was invited for one when I was 25 but put it off, due to embarrassment I guess. My smear was over in a matter of minutes and wasn’t painful, just uncomfortable. I received my ‘abnormal’ results a few weeks later and had to go for a colposcopy. I had severe precancerous cells and would need a biopsy, which was quite painful, but manageable. I was called back two weeks later to be told I had cervical cancer.

I’m quite a practical person so I did as much research as I could. Being well informed helped me cope with what was to come. I was assigned an oncologist who organised my scans and put me at Stage 1B1. My treatment was a radical hysterectomy – he had to take out everything except my ovaries so I wouldn’t go through menopause just yet. My operation took hours and I got very sick afterwards, needing blood transfusions. Recovery was hard and it took a good few months to get used to the ‘new normal’. But it was successful and I was given the all clear on 24th September 2012.

During my treatment, I contacted the Irish Cancer Society’s Survivor Support Programme who were lovely. They put me in touch with a lady who had gone through what I went through and she was a great source of comfort. It was after this that I set up my own support group to help women going through cervical issues. It’s helped so many and I couldn’t be happier with that. My advice to women is to get your smears done. There’s no need to feel embarrassed. They only take a few minutes and could save your life.”

See @CervicalCancerAwarenessIreland on Facebook.

About Daffodil Day

Daffodil Day, proudly supported by Boots Ireland, takes place on March 23rd and raises crucial funds to support cancer patients and their families. Your support saves lives. For more information on how you can get involved, click here.

You can also text ‘Daff’ to 50300 to donate €4 – Irish Cancer Society will receive a minimum of €3.60. (Texts cost €4. Service provider: LIKECHARITY. Helpline: 076 6805278.)