Vicky Phelan: ‘I was just sitting in the back of the car bawling’

Vicky will find out at the end of March if the cancer treatment in the US is working

Vicky Phelan receiving treatment in America.

Vicky Phelan receiving treatment in America.

 

The day in January that Vicky Phelan left home to travel to Maryland, US for experimental cancer treatment to shrink her tumours was “fairly horrendous”.

Having said a tearful goodbye to her children, her father and sister drove her to the airport. “I was just sitting in the back of the car bawling the whole way up. That was the worst of it really, that day travelling.

“I knew nobody coming over here,” says the cervical cancer awareness campaigner. “Not a single person. But within two days of getting here I had people dropping off stuff to the hotel. People reached out to me on social media and I started answering messages. One girl Maeve, who I’ve become very friendly with, herself and her husband, Seán, live in an apartment not too far from me. When I was moving, her husband Seán came over and helped me move all my stuff to the apartment.

I can say hand over heart, I’ve not been lonely since I’ve gotten here. It’s just been phenomenal

“There’s another lady, Geraldine, who I’m staying with at the moment. I’m across the border over in Virginia. Geraldine is another Irish woman, but she’s been living here for 25 years. I stay with her once or twice a week and she’s literally minding me and looking after me whenever I’ve had treatment. There’s another girl, Jennifer, in New York who drove down at the weekend, after I had the really bad reaction from the treatment last Tuesday, and drove me into the hospital.

“I’ve been so lucky. I’ve met so many lovely people. There’s another couple from Galway, Mike and Mairéad, and they’re living in New Jersey. They drove down from New Jersey, about a month ago, booked into a hotel, came down with food, filled my freezer, stews and soups and loads of stuff, and we spent the weekend together and it’s been lovely. I can say hand over heart, I’ve not been lonely since I’ve gotten here. It’s just been phenomenal to be quite honest.”

Earlier this month a portrait of Vicky Phelan raised €55,700 at auction in aid of the Heroes Aid charity. David Brennan, from Kilkenny, pictured, collecting the portrait. Photographer: Amanda Lowry
Earlier this month a portrait of Vicky Phelan raised €55,700 at auction in aid of the Heroes Aid charity. David Brennan, from Kilkenny, pictured, collecting the portrait. Photographer: Amanda Lowry

An awful lot of yapping

Vicky rings her children three times a day and her other family and friends in between that. “I do an awful lot of yapping. An awful lot more yapping than I would have,” she laughs. “I ring them first thing when I get up, usually middle of the evening and then the last time is before they go to bed at night. I find sometimes when everyone is in bed at home, that’s the time when I might start feeling homesick, because I know they’re all in bed and there’s no one I can talk to, but that’s where the people here come into their own. So I ring one or two of them.

“I’m actually coping better than I thought I would. I thought it would be harder. Maybe it’s because I see them [her children] so often. The fact that I can see them every day makes a huge difference to me.

“The teenager is managing far better than the nine-year-old,” she says, attributing this to the fact that Covid restrictions have meant her daughter, Amelia, is very used to video-calling friends who live further away. “It’s different for the nine-year-old. There are days he doesn’t want to talk to me on the phone, but I don’t push it. I think if he doesn’t want to talk to me, I’ll leave him, because there’s no point in getting angry with him. I can deal with it, he can’t. He’s just missing me. That’s all it is.”

Last month, Vicky getting the the drug M7824.
Last month, Vicky getting the the drug M7824.

On treatment days Vicky makes sure to have a good breakfast “because I know now that could be the start of me not eating for a few days”.

The drug makes Vicky very ill to the point she spent Valentine’s day in hospital.

“First thing I have to do is go and get bloods. Then I go up to the clinic, up to the oncology clinic, where I meet my team – I still haven’t met the doctor who is treating me because it’s all done on Zoom, it’s weird. But I would meet nurses who would take my blood pressure, my weight, all of that. Then I’d have a chat with the doctor on the laptop and then once they get the blood results back and they’re happy for me to go ahead with treatment, they give the go-ahead for the treatment to be made up and then I have to go into another ward.

My logic is if this doesn’t work, I need to get on to another clinical trial here

“Generally, so far, I haven’t been sick on the day, but it’s usually a day or two later that it starts. They’ve adjusted my anti-sickness medication, but the problem with the anti-sickness medication that I’m on is that it causes constipation.”

Vicky says she dreads treatment day. “Because you know how sick you’re going to be when you’ve had reactions like that. I’m going in there going, oh God, I know how sick I’m going to be. The only thing is you’ve got to tell yourself it’s not going to last, because it didn’t with Pembro [the previous drug she was on]. I’d a couple of rough weeks’ side effects and then it eased off.”

Vicky will find out if the treatment is working at the end of March. The magic date she’s working towards is March 23rd. “I have a scan booked in for the 23rd of March, which is my mother’s birthday, so I’m hoping that’s a good omen. If everything is going well, I just continue along on my treatment schedule. If it isn’t, if things aren’t working and it means that no tumours have shrunk and I’ve new tumours, or if it looks like it’s not working, literally it’s very clinical – they just take you off it.”

Either way, Vicky will not be coming home yet.

“I am already looking at another clinical trial here. I feel like I’m here now, I’m a patient at the hospital. My logic is if this doesn’t work, I need to get on to another clinical trial here. I’ve already made that decision and I’ve told my family. They know that.

“Sometimes, if you start on a new clinical trial, generally you have to stop treatment on a previous [trial] for 28 days so if it’s a case that that happened and there were 28 days and I was feeling well enough, I’d probably go home for a couple of weeks before I’d start, but I would be coming back, definitely.”

Vicky Phelan in Ireland last September: Vicky says the day she left home to travel to Maryland for experimental cancer treatment to shrink her tumours was ‘fairly horrendous’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Vicky Phelan in Ireland last September: Vicky says the day she left home to travel to Maryland for experimental cancer treatment to shrink her tumours was ‘fairly horrendous’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Vicky hasn’t yet been vaccinated against Covid and admits that it’s an additional worry for her. Even though she’s missing home she says she was glad to leave Ireland when she did. “I would have had to quite literally stay inside. I wouldn’t have been able to go outside the door. Because I knew I was coming over here on a trial and because I knew I wasn’t going to be vaccinated, I had to make a really hard decision before I came over not to see any of my friends. I couldn’t take the chance. I just said, ‘No, I want to see my mam and dad and my sister and my brothers’ and, even at that, that’s three different families. But I had to take the hit on the friends and it was terrible.

“Even though I was coming over here, not on a holiday, for experimental treatment, the luxury, just to get out of the country to see somewhere different, honestly that has been so good for me. It’s beautiful here in Maryland and Virginia. It feels like there’s parts of it that are just like being on holidays and it’s lovely. It just feels like the last 12 months have been so hard because we haven’t been able to go anywhere.”

Vicky says the support she has received as she undergoes treatment is “just phenomenal”.

While she’s had lots of people contact her over the past three years she says “this is on a level I didn’t expect. It is keeping me going over here to be quite honest.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.