The future is much brighter for people diagnosed with cancer

Sarah McGinley is just one of the many people with a positive ending to their cancer story. She was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid just after giving birth to her son in 2015

March 24th is Daffodil Day – the annual fundraising event for the Irish Cancer Society where volunteers all over the country raise funds for the charity to aid treatment and research – and since its conception in 1988 an impressive €66million has been raised.

We all know of someone who has either battled or succumbed to the disease. The current incidence of cancer in Ireland is one in three. Getting a cancer diagnosis is by no means a pleasant experience, however, advances in medical research mean that the current treatment and prognosis for many patients is much more positive than it was in the past.

Dr Robert O’Connor is head of research at the ICS and he says, thanks to intensive research, the future is much brighter for people diagnosed with cancer.

“Fifty years ago, just three in 10 cancer patients survived their diagnosis,” he says. “Now, six in 10 cancer patients will live for five years or more after being told that they have cancer. Much of this is down to advances in research, which has found answers to questions about the factors which can cause cancer, how it can be detected earlier and new and better treatments.

“Today more than 200 approved drugs and therapies for treating different cancers are currently available. Many are specific drugs, discovered by researchers to treat individual cancer types. When it comes to finding new treatments, researchers are increasingly focusing on this type of personalised cancer therapy as a way to stop cancer in its tracks.”

Positive outcome Sarah McGinley is just one of the many people with a positive ending to their cancer story. She was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid just after giving birth to her son Rua-Patrick in 2015.

“During my ante-natal appointments I told the doctor that my ‘pregnancy’ symptoms included vomiting, pelvic pain and the feeling of a large uncomfortable lump in my throat,” says the Galway woman.

She was monitored closely throughout her pregnancy and although neither her symptoms nor the lump changed in size or appearance, she continued to have difficulty swallowing, grew increasingly tired and her pelvic pain worsened to the point that she had to use crutches to get around. Amazed at how difficult her ‘pregnancy symptoms’ were, it wasn’t until her son was born that tests revealed their true nature.

“In February – at Rua’s six-week check – I mentioned to my GP that I was still feeling the lump in my neck,” she says. “It was really bothering me as when I swallowed everyone could see it and I was getting a little concerned that it wasn’t changing – all the other ‘pregnancy related symptoms’ had departed completely on the morning we welcomed our gorgeous son but this wasn’t going anywhere. It was sore and it felt like it was choking me.

“I got an appointment in May (with an endocrine specialist) but had to wait until October and spent an anxious few months worrying about it and reading a lot about thyroid nodules. At this stage I was also suffering from what I now know was a suppressed immune system and was catching every cold and bug going (including an unusually bad case of mastitis and tonsillitis) – I felt completely rubbish – exhausted and run down and my family were suffering too.

“Then after the ultrasound scan and biopsy, I had to wait a few weeks before I was told that I had a carcinoma in my neck and would need to see a surgeon who would remove it.”

Both the new mother and her partner Brent were naturally devastated to have to deal with something like this so soon after their baby had arrived – but knew there was nothing for it but to just be strong and get through the treatment which would hopefully cure her.

Surgery Her operation took place just before Christmas 2015 and as well as removing the lump, 'extensive neck dissection' was necessary to limit the chance of spreading.

“There was a multi-disciplinary meeting in the hospital where they discussed my case and doctors decided they were advising a total thyroidectomy but still allowing me to make the choice,” says Sarah who works as a teacher. “I decided I didn’t want to risk having two major surgeries on my neck (if cancer returned) and being away from my family in hospital, so I would go for the total removal.

“This meant that no matter what the outcome I was committing to a life of synthetic thyroid hormone – a tablet or two or three every morning, appointments in the endocrine clinic, carrying prescriptions wherever I went and having to repeatedly check bloods – forever. This horrified me and yet I knew it was the only option.”

Following this extensive surgery, the mother-of-one also had to endure a course of radiotherapy to ensure the cancer had been eradicated entirely.

“A few weeks later I was scheduled for Radioactive Iodine Treatment, which is the most surreal experience,” she says. “You have to consume a small tablet and remain in isolation for a week and everything in the room is destroyed after three months of storage to allow the radiation to wear off. This works like magic and kills every thyroid cell in the body.

“The week in the room was really not that bad – a lot easier than what many deal with following a cancer diagnosis. I spent it mostly on the phone home missing my boys (Brent and Rua) and decided that I was to enjoy the week of uninterrupted sleep – so I did just that.

And then at the end of that week, I had a full body scan and some CT imaging of the neck, which was probably the most invasive and distressing part.”

Positive But despite her horrific ordeal, so soon after what should have been the most precious time of her life (becoming a mother), she is extremely upbeat and positive and is looking forward to enjoying life with her family.

“At every point I remained positive and didn’t wallow even though it would have been easy to do so,” she says. “I have seen what cancer does to others but knew I was going to be okay. Brent outdid himself – minding me, buying flowers, cooking and caring for our son wonderfully – he has been an incredible support and has helped me to stay focused on getting better and being positive.

“My family were incredible and supportive and made me feel good about myself and kept me smiling and my son gives me a billion reasons to jump up in the morning even when I feel I need to sleep for a year to recover.”

Sarah’s story is just one of thousands and Dr O’Connor explains why it is so important that people pay to attention to their health and seek medical advice if they experience any unusual or painful symptoms as early detection if vital.

“Currently more than 150,000 people in Ireland are going through or have gone through a cancer diagnosis,” he says. “This year it’s expected that 40,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease.

“With four out of 10 cancers being preventable, simple lifestyle measures, especially when introduced to children, can have huge benefits (in cancer and many other diseases). These simple measures are captured in the European code against cancer. These measures are not complicated or expensive and they do not require people to eat special diets or foods. They merely need us to not eat too much to avoid putting on weight and exercise regularly.

“Vaccination against HPV (in teenagers) is also a vital part of cancer prevention and many cancers are curable if caught early. So engaging with the free and easy cancer screening services, such as Bowel screen, Cervical Check and Breast Check greatly increases the chances that if a cancer does develop it will be picked up early while it is still curable.

“You are more likely to survive cancer if you spot it at an early stage. So we would advise everyone to take the time to check their body for changes that could be cancer and talk to their doctor if they notice anything unusual.”

While current medication is helping to treat thousands of people like Sarah with cancer, the oncology expert is hopeful that ongoing research will save many more lives.

“Modern cancer research will continue to look for more answers for these questions (about the disease),” says Dr O’Connor. “There’s more that we can do in the areas of cancer prevention, detection and treatment. And as more people survive cancer, we’re looking at ways in which survivors can live longer, healthier and better quality lives.

“Researchers won’t stop until 10 out of 10 cancer patients survive their diagnosis, but the race to stop cancer is a marathon, not a sprint.”

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Naomi Fitzgibbon, ICS Nurseline manager says while there is no across the board answer as to why people develop different types of cancers, there are distinct ways in which we help to reduce our risk

“While minimising the risk factors does not mean that you won’t ever get cancer, it means that you can increase your chances of not getting it,’ she says. “There are a number of ways to reduce risks including:

1. Be a healthy weight

2. Be active

3. Limit alcohol

4. Women should breastfeed their babies

5. Don’t smoke

6. Ensure to self-examine regularly and seek medical advice if unsure

7. Attend screening when called between the ages of 50 and 64.

Anyone who is concerned about cancer awareness can speak with a specialist nurse in confidence by calling the Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700.

About cancer

Every three minutes in Ireland someone gets a cancer diagnosis.

Every hour someone dies from cancer.

Incidence of cancer is growing and by 2020, one in two of us will get a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime.

In Ireland an average of 40,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year with figures increasing to 43,000 next year and 46,000 the year after.

The most common cancers diagnosed in Ireland are: skin, prostate, breast, bowel and lung.

Cancer is the second biggest killer in Ireland and it accounts for approximately 30 per cent of deaths every year; heart disease accounts for 31 per cent of all deaths.

Some nine out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking as cigarettes contain more than 4,000 chemicals, 60 of which are known to cause cancer. Half of all smokers will die from a tobacco-related disease.

There are more than 150,000 people living with and beyond cancer today in Ireland. But survival rates for individual cancers vary hugely.

Four out of 10 cancers can be prevented. Cutting out smoking, eating healthily, maintaining a healthy weight, lowering alcohol intake and exercising regularly all help towards lowering our risk of cancer.

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