Metastatic Cancer: “I knew how serious it was, but I always felt like I could pull it off — I’m known for being stubborn.”
Opening up to embarrassing symptoms is something we all need to learn. When it comes to intimate issues, many people put off going to the doctor because they don’t want to go into detail.
But early detection is key, so regardless of the sensitivity of the issue, it is important that if we have any concerns, we should not hesitate to raise them as it can be critical to diagnosis, treatment and outcome. But even with a diagnosis at a more advanced stage, there are still many options available.
Niamh Conroy didn’t hesitate to ask her doctor for advice two years ago when she noticed her “stool was getting thinner”, there was occasional blood on the paper after going to the toilet and she was losing weight.
After testing, she was diagnosed with rectal cancer and is now living well with the treatment.
“I noticed the first symptoms in October 2021, when I stopped going to the bathroom as often and regularly felt like I wasn’t really done yet,” she says. “I wasn’t overly concerned as I thought it might have to do with being near menopause or maybe needing to change my diet – other than that I felt great so I didn’t pay much attention to it.
“But in December I started to feel a little worried as I was still having the same symptoms and people were commenting on my weight loss and by Christmas I was tired and not eating as much as usual. I thought it might be my thyroid, Celiac disease or some other gut condition, but cancer certainly wasn’t on my radar. However, in January 2022 I went to my GP who took my symptoms seriously and performed a manual exam (digital rectal exam), ordered blood tests and referred me for a colonoscopy.
“A few weeks later, the results came back and showed elevated liver enzymes, indicating possible gallbladder problems. Then, when I had the colonoscopy in February, the endoscope couldn’t get past a mass in my rectum that I was told needed urgent attention. After some further investigation, the oncologist confirmed that the mass was very large and cancerous and I would need stoma surgery as soon as possible, along with further tests to see if it had spread elsewhere.”
After being shared with the devastating news, the 45-year-old, who is currently on sick leave from her job as a social worker for the Central Health Clinic, received details of her proposed treatment plan. But two weeks after her diagnosis, she discovered the cancer had spread to the liver.
“When I was told I had cancer, I felt strangely calm,” she says. “I didn’t bother having a stoma at all and managed very well from the start. During my hospital stay (March 2022) I underwent a liver biopsy and a port-a-cath (a device used to draw blood and introduce treatments such as chemotherapy) was inserted into my chest to facilitate chemotherapy over a long period of time. It was difficult as no visitors were allowed due to Covid so I was really struggling emotionally. When I went home my mother came to stay and help a bit while I recovered. Then I started my chemo on April 8th and it was given every two weeks.
“I did 12 full cycles and then had another three at a reduced dose as a maintenance dose – and halfway through treatment I had scans showing a good response but I wasn’t quite ready for surgery so they went ahead ( with the treatment). . My oncologist has always been so positive and encouraging, which has helped me tremendously to feel positive even though I probably drive him crazy with questions.
“I felt very well throughout the treatment and without any complications, I went out as much as possible, ate very well and healthy and went to acupuncture every two weeks – this definitely helped me to tolerate everything with almost no side effects.
“At the end of active treatment I had a series of scans showing a fantastic response. Therefore, liver resection is now being considered to remove the tumors and when I recover I should undergo radiotherapy and surgery at the main primary tumor. I hope that all this will start very soon.”
Niamh, who lives in north Dublin with her husband Gearóid and their four children Sebastien, 15, Evie, 12, Amelie, 10, and Gabrielle, 6, is staying as positive as she can while trying to adjust to life with adapt to cancer.
She would advise anyone diagnosed with metastatic or inoperable cancer to accept any support that is offered and try to live in the present.
“I think I was expecting it (her cancer diagnosis) when the GP got the results of the first blood tests, so I wasn’t really shocked,” she says. “I had previously hoped for liver surgery, but the amount and location of the tumors meant I had to undergo a lot of chemo first. So we just went into a “deal with it” mode and I made sure to enjoy as much time as possible with the kids and family, especially in the early days before “chemo fatigue” set in. We (she and her husband) knew the reality and the seriousness of it all, but we always felt like I would just get through it – I’m known for being stubborn and stubborn.
“Nevertheless, I have days when I’m scared – just like the rest of the family. So we talk about it, give ourselves the space to feel it, acknowledge it and then place it where it belongs and just move on while enjoying what we have.
“If I could give one piece of advice to someone who has just been diagnosed, I would say that they should allow themselves to feel what they are feeling. There is no one size fits all (when it comes to feelings and diagnoses) and there is no right or wrong way to do it, so all is valid.
“You can feel many things at once or go through cycles (of feeling), and that’s okay too. Know that you are you and not a statistic and take it one day at a time. It’s okay to change your priorities now, but find those who support you and accept the help. Also the counseling and therapy is wonderful so connect with all the supports you can. The Psychiatric Department at Beaumont Hospital and the Marie Keating Foundation have helped me cope and bring everything back to the here and now with mindfulness, nutrition, exercise and fun. All of this is the true self-care you need and deserve.”
Luckily, the mother-of-four is getting the treatment and support she needs, and she would advise anyone concerned about any symptoms to seek advice as soon as possible, as early detection can make the difference to positive results.
“It can be easy to dismiss the symptoms as due to a variety of reasons, but I would encourage people to listen and take care of their bodies,” she says. “If there’s a change that’s going to take more than a few weeks, just have it taken care of. If you are not happy, take care of your own health too. The system may be loaded, but those who work in it will always support you. You don’t burden anyone by taking care of your health.
“For anyone who has been diagnosed with colon, colon or rectal cancer we have just launched a new patient organization called the Irish Colorectal Cancer Community which can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We are also currently preparing for our flagship awareness campaign taking place in March and April with support from the Marie Keating Foundation and members of the colorectal oncology profession.”
Liz Yeats, CEO of the Marie Keating Foundation, agrees that early diagnosis is very important when it comes to cancer.
“Advances in treatment and also our knowledge of healthier lifestyles may also mean that many people who have advanced cancer are living really well beyond the five-year prognosis,” she says. “We see this all the time at our Living Positive support group for people with metastatic cancer.
“An advanced cancer diagnosis does not mean that you cannot live well for many years. However, we urge people to take action and get evaluated by their GP if they notice any signs or symptoms that are unusual for you.”
About colon cancer
- Around 2,930 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Ireland each year.
- It affects both men and women, but is more common in people over 50.
- If you have a close family member who has had the disease or another bowel condition, your risk increases.
- You’re also more at risk if you’re overweight; eat a diet high in fat and red meat and low in fiber, fruits and vegetables; Smoke; and drink above the low-risk guidelines.
- But even people without risk factors can get the disease.
- Symptoms include:
- A change in normal bowel movements, such as diarrhea or constipation.
- Feeling like you haven’t completely emptied your bowels after an exercise.
- Pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy) or back passage.
- Trapped gas or fullness in the abdomen.
- weight loss.
- Fatigue and breathlessness (due to anemia from blood loss).
- Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool.
For more information and resources, see mariekeating.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/metastatic-cancer-i-knew-the-seriousness-of-it-but-i-always-felt-that-id-get-through-it-im-known-for-being-stubborn-42326993.html Metastatic Cancer: “I knew how serious it was, but I always felt like I could pull it off — I’m known for being stubborn.”