How early detection of cancer could save your life

Liam Cuddihy got medical advice when he was concerned and it made all the difference

With almost 45,000 people diagnosed with cancer every year in Ireland – and an estimated one in two of us getting the disease at some point in our lifetime – it is safe to say that cancer affects all of us in some form or other – either directly or indirectly.

But while this is a stark fact, according to the National Cancer Registry Ireland (2021), there are indications of "substantial progress" being made to control the four major cancers – prostate, breast, lung and colorectal – and mortality rate for some cancers are falling or stabilising.

This is positive news indeed and can be attributed, in part, to both new treatments and early detection, something which the Irish Cancer Society is keen to promote on Daffodil Day, their biggest annual fundraising event, which takes place this year on Friday, March 25th (see cancer.ie/daffodilday).

Coping with the treatment physically was not too much of a problem for me, as I tolerated the chemo fairly well and did not suffer that much sickness, even though I did lose my hair

Liam Cuddihy knows all about the importance of seeking medical advice if any concerns as in 2018, he began to experience some pain in his hip and was also feeling unusually tired. So when his son noticed that he had a lump under his chin, he immediately contacted his GP, who referred him to hospital for tests, where it was discovered that he had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma (NHL).

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“I was shocked with the diagnosis, but also not surprised because of how I had been feeling,” says the 52-year-old. “I began treatment within a week and things happened so fast that in November, I achieved full remission and, although I was on a maintenance treatment, was able to return to work in March 2019.

“But while at a maintenance appointment in September 2020, I showed my oncologist a lump under my right armpit. I wasn’t overly concerned myself, but I was immediately sent for a PET scan and within 48 hours, was informed that my NHL had returned, and my consultant had concerns. I was started on a new treatment, which after three months didn’t resolve the NHL, so it was decided that I should be put on a trial treatment called POLARGO. However, after five cycles and a reasonable, but not full response, it was decided that a new form of treatment called CAR T Therapy, be looked at.

“This is an immunotherapy involving my own T cells being modified to recognise and fight the cancer in my body. Car T stands for chimeric antigen receptor which changes the T cells, the cancer fighting cells to help them find and remove cancer.”

‘Been in remission’

Liam, who is married to Eibhlin and has three children, travelled to London for the treatment and since returning in June 2021, has “been in remission”. This has been very welcome news and although the experience has been difficult, he has remained positive by opening up about his feelings and joining a local cancer support group.

“I was very nervous about how my treatment would progress and had concerns about how this would affect my life, my family and my employment situation long term,” says the Waterford man. “Coping with the treatment physically was not too much of a problem for me, as I tolerated the chemo fairly well and did not suffer that much sickness, even though I did lose my hair.

“But mentally I was concerned about how I would be in the long term, so after my first bout of chemo I contacted our local cancer support centre, the Solas centre here in Waterford and arranged an appointment with a councillor, just to sit and chat. During the conversation I was informed of the various services and groups that the centre provided – one of these is a men’s group which I joined and still participate into this day (through WhatsApp since Covid).

“The group has sit-down meetings where a mix of general conversation banter and slagging takes place with some serious topics also being discussed – and the real benefit for me was being with other NHL patients and hearing their experiences of treatments and side effects also the logistical difficulties of getting to and from hospitals to collect medication and so forth. And also how they resolved these issues.

“The main activity we have in the group is our garden project which started in 2018 and is still being worked on now, with a combination of structured planted areas and a wildflower area. Overall, my experience of the group had a positive impact on my mental wellbeing, and I have to say that being part it has made me feel very good and also prevented any kind of isolation or desperation setting into my mind.”

Changed lives

Working as a process operator for a pharmaceutical company, Liam says that having cancer has changed how he lives his life and as he was fortunate to have the disease detected early and treated successfully, he is now determined to enjoy every day to the full.

“Having cancer has had a huge impact on my life; from going through the process to learning about the different treatments and experiencing them first hand,” he says. “Life is different now as before I was a kind of run-of-the-mill ordinary man; working away, doing family stuff at weekends and taking regular exercise such as running or walking, mixed in with a few beers here and there on the weekends, either at home or down the local pub.

One thing I have noticed after going through cancer is the difficulties that people with chronic conditions endure in Ireland

“Now I have a completely different outlook (since being diagnosed) and am keen to try new things. I recently got a digital camera and joined a photography club so I’m busy learning new skills and tips and tricks. I also spend a lot of time walking outdoors and taking in the views of the area I live in. I find that the experience of going through cancer has given me even more of an appreciation for enjoying life and different people.”

The father of three says that while he is obviously delighted that he has come out the other side of his experience of cancer, many changes need to be made to help others deal with the impact of the disease.

“One thing I have noticed after going through cancer is the difficulties that people with chronic conditions endure in Ireland,” he says. “I have been around people who have had to fight tooth and nail to get supports to help them through their cancer journey – for things like medical cards and supplies needed for their treatment and transport to locations for treatment.

“I also have to say that health care workers, both in Ireland and abroad, need to be recognised and respected for the dedication they have. The hard work they have done and continue to do so well under the Covid situation is unbelievable, keeping patients safe and well and looking after them in such challenging times.”

The message of Daffodil Day is that early detection can save lives, but the impact of Covid-19 caused patients to postpone doctors’ visits, screening programmes were paused, and acute services were reconfigured to reduce footfall in hospitals.

“Early detection of cancer is vital so if you notice a change in your body, do not delay in contacting your GP,” says Aoife McNamara, information development manager with the Irish Cancer Society. “The sooner a cancer is diagnosed, the more treatment options there are available to you and the better your chance of cure. Remember you know your body best.”

Key findings from the National Cancer Registry Ireland (2021)

  • Over the years 2017-2019 the average number of "registered tumours" in males and females is estimated at almost 44,000 per year.
  • Indications of substantial progress being made to control the four major cancers (prostate, breast, lung and colorectal), which comprise over half of all invasive tumours (other than the common but rarely fatal non-melanoma skin cancers).
  • Mortality rates falling or stabilising for these four major cancers, and incidence rates falling for both lung and colorectal cancers.
  • Five-year net survival averaging 65 per cent for cancer patients diagnosed between 2014 and 2018, a substantial increase from 20 years previously, when 42 per cent was the average.
  • The number of cancer survivors living through or after cancer treatment in Ireland continuing to increase, year on year. At the end of 2019, there were nearly 200,000 patients living after a cancer diagnosis.
  • – Daffodil Day 2022, the day we take back from cancer takes place on Friday, March 25th. Take part and take back from cancer anyway you can this Daffodil Day at cancer.ie/daffodilday. Anyone with concerns or questions about cancer can contact the Support Line on Freephone: 1800 200 700.