Evelyn O’Rourke: ‘While I was waiting for the biopsy results I discovered I was pregnant’
The RTÉ reporter’s documentary looks at breast cancer treatment in the last 10 years
RTÉ reporter Evelyn O’Rourke’s friendly upbeat manner belies the impact of her life-changing experience of having breast cancer while pregnant with her second son, Ross, just over 10 years ago.
With plans to meet on a socially-distanced park bench abandoned due to rain, she sits into the back seat of my (well ventilated) car to chat about her passion to speak to women about their cancer experiences and the importance of cancer research.
“I have had intense conversations with women diagnosed with breast cancer when pregnant but I’ll always remember a listener who phoned RTÉ to reassure me that she came through it all while I could hear her 10-year-old son [with whom she had been pregnant at the time] in the background.”
In 2014, O’Rourke chronicled her cancer journey in Dear Ross: An Amazing True Story of Love and Survival (Hachette Books Ireland) and has since become a sought after expert-by-experience to speak to women’s groups throughout Ireland. “I encourage women to check out anything unusual on their breasts. It doesn’t have to be a lump. It can be puckering, a sagging breast or a red pimple that won’t go away, as I had,” she explains.
A fluent Irish speaker, O’Rourke’s latest endeavour – outside of her busy day job on Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio One – is the Tyrone Productions documentary, Ailse & Ise (Cancer & Her) on TG4 on Wednesday, May 12th, at 9.30pm. In this, she interviews women and medical professionals about cancer treatments 10 years on from her personal experience.
But, first let’s go back to that shocking discovery of a red pimple on her breast while on maternity leave with her elder son, Oisin.
“There was no history of breast cancer in my family so it was not on my radar. I was 37 years old, at home with my four-month-old son on maternity leave from the Gerry Ryan Show. Gerry died in April 2010, which was hugely upsetting. I went to a women’s health clinic and was referred to St Vincent’s University Hospital. While I was waiting for the biopsy results, I discovered I was pregnant.”
The results came back that O’Rourke had hormone sensitive HER2 negative breast cancer. “I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumour, a second surgery to remove the lymph nodes and a third surgery to treat an infection because I couldn’t take antibiotics while pregnant,” she says.
Her husband, John McMahon, an executive producer in RTÉ , kept his bicycle outside the window of his office so he could cycle to see her in hospital within minutes. Her mother, who lives next door in the Dublin suburb of Dundrum, was very supportive as were her siblings and wider circle of family and friends. “My baby son, Oisín, was wheeled into the hospital in his pram to see me. It’s incredible the amount of practical support you need but I never had more willing volunteers. People are sometimes awkward about what to do but as a patient, you must take control and suggest what you need them to do.”
To express her gratitude, she brought her newborn baby into St Vincent’s hospital where staff came from all corners of the hospital to see him
Chemotherapy was delayed until the second trimester of her pregnancy to protect her baby and the family went on their annual holiday to Kells Bay in Co Kerry where O’Rourke swam in the sea by day and had her wound dressed each night. “John used to say to me, just picture our two kids in wetsuits jumping off the pier in 10 years’ time.” And, 10 years later, the film crew returned to Kells Bay to film the family there as part of the TG4 documentary.
O’Rourke had six treatments of chemotherapy in all. “It was a horrendous, exhausting experience but I was very reassured that the chances of it crossing the placenta were minimal and Ross never missed a development milestone during the pregnancy,” she says.
Ross was born by elective Caesarean section in early February 2011, “I was so grateful that he was healthy and well. When Ross was born, the horror of the [cancer] experience dissolved. I feel Ross is a walking example of how the Irish medical community took care of us every step of the way,” she says. To express her gratitude, she brought her newborn baby into St Vincent’s hospital where staff came from all corners of the hospital to see him.
The biggest game changer has been the genetic test that has reduced the number of patients given chemotherapy for breast cancer by 50-70 per cent
O’Rourke finished her radiotherapy treatments in May 2011 and rather than have the party her friends had promised her, she had a “good old cry” on the back steps of the hospital. She wrote her book as a form of therapy but also went for counselling sessions at the ARC cancer support centre. “People said to me, ‘you are handling it really well’ but I needed a stranger to assess me and challenge me to say things that you can’t say to family.” Her six-monthly check-ups are now annual and she continues to take a daily dose of the hormonal drug Taxmoxifen.
So thankful was O’Rourke that she was well that she got involved with Cancer Trials Ireland and in the TG4 documentary, she highlights the importance of women having access to cancer trials in Ireland (not always the case) and how Covid-19 has disrupted both the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
“I also talk about the need for protected hours so that hospital staff have time to dedicate to their clinical trials work which is not the case for many at the moment,” says O’Rourke.
Part of the impetus for doing the documentary was to find out how cancer treatment has improved in the last 10 years. The biggest game changer has been the OncoType DX genetic test, which has reduced the number of patients given chemotherapy for breast cancer by 50-70 per cent.
Cervical cancer screening is another strand in the documentary. O’Rourke interviews women with cervical cancer (including some whose smear tests were misread) and Dr Noirin Russell, the new clinical director of Cervical Check, all of whom say cervical cancer screening and the HPV vaccination of teenagers are the best way to reduce cervical cancer. “Australia is set to become the first country in the world to eradicate cervical cancer with screening and HPV vaccination. That’s what I want to see here,” says Dr Russell.
And, of course, there are poignant patient stories too including an interview with Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon, a GP in Cork who writes a blog (Adventures of a Sick Doctor) about her experience of living with Stage 4 bowel cancer since 2014.
So, how does O’Rourke feel now, looking back at her own cancer experience?
“I realise that I could never have coped with breast cancer and pregnancy without the love and support from all my family. And I find that comforting now. Most days, I’m just getting on with my life. I love my family, friends and my husband, John. I’m lucky in that I’ve a busy life raising my boys and interesting work, so doing this documentary is just giving something back.”