Why I Relay, Caroline's Story

20 Apr 2022

It’s 3 years since I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. The November before that, I’d had my spleen removed to alleviate constant anaemia due to elliptocyosis and was feeling physically and emotionally better than I’d done in years. At a regular appointment with my gynaecologist, I mentioned that my period had come back, it was as if my body was cranking back to normal following the splenectomy. I’d had regular scans and a D&C the year before so having another one scheduled wasn’t a surprise. What also wasn’t a surprise was my follow up appointment being brought forward by 2 weeks.

The surprise, the shock, the absolute brick to the face was the diagnosis! Those ‘3 little words’ nobody wants to hear; You. Have. Cancer.

The doctor had to tell me a second time because he could see that it just did not compute with me. It wasn’t denial, I knew what he was saying and I understood, but it just felt so alien to actually hear the phrase being said to me about me! ‘You have cancer…' then came the 4th word – ‘but…', a metaphorical ring buoy being cast into the overwhelming waters I’d fallen into. ‘You have cancer, but we caught it early’, it was stage one and could be treated with surgery and follow up radiotherapy. If I hadn’t said about my period at the earlier appointment, who knows what could have happened.  We know to check for lumps and moles, but I had no prior indication that anything was seriously wrong, no idea that my period coming back was a bad thing and a prime indicator of endometrial cancer and it’s something that I’m determined to make well known as something for older, menopausal women to be aware of.

I’ve joked with friends that my medical history for the last 5 years would fill an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy. Not even a soap like Hollyoaks could come up with a plotline as unbelievable as what I’ve gone through.

5 surgeries in the space of 4 years, including 2 that were cancer related. The second one was in July 2020 to do a wider incision and sentinel node biopsy on a melanoma. The 2 weeks between the biopsy and the results were hard because this time I knew I was waiting on another potential cancer diagnosis. I was only back in work a couple of months after being off for a full year. The time spent in Dublin having radiotherapy was, for the most part, fairly easy going. I got to go into the city and visit museums, shops and cafes while catching up with relatives and friends. Of course, there were days when I was tired, sick and feeling really low mentally, but overall my personal experience of St. Luke’s was positive due to the lovely staff I’d see day in day out and the advice they gave me to help me through the treatment and its aftermath.

About a month after I had finished the course, I was considering going back to work but that soon went by the wayside as the after effects of radiotherapy, particularly the tiredness, hit me like a ton of bricks and stayed with me into 2020. Having only returned to work at the end of May, the prospect of having to go through all that again, was taking its toll. I was wound up and stressed out and uncomfortable from the healing incision between my shoulder blades.  The consultant had barely said ‘Well, it’s good news…' when I burst into tears and sobbed my heart out with relief.  

I sang with Oyster Lane Theatre Group at the last live Relay For Life in 2019 a few weeks after my hysterectomy and just a couple of weeks before I started radiotherapy in St. Luke’s hospital, Rathgar. It was inspiring to see the survivors in their purple tees and I knew I wanted to wear mine at the next Relay.   

Being a cranky aul wan with a bad back (arthritis), it’s just a bit beyond me at the moment to fully participate, but I’d like to show my support by spreading the word about being aware of your own body. Check your bits and bobs, and your freckles and moles regularly. My Dermatologist recommends to do it about once a month because if you’re constantly checking you’ll never notice any changes - be aware, but don’t be paranoid. If you find something, go see your GP and get referred to a specialist. Please don’t ignore it and if it turns out to be something, hopefully, it’s caught early and dealt with quickly. If it turns out to be nothing, well that’s even better!

Cancer is a rotten thief. It takes our time, our special moments and worst of all, it takes the people we love from us. Statistics say that One in Two of us will get cancer, on a personal level, out of a family of 6, three of us have had cancer, but thanks to intervention and treatment, the three of us have been fortunate enough to get through it. Because of fundraisers like Relay For Life, treatments and technologies have improved, enabling people to live longer and to be cured of cancers that were once fatal. Relay was missed from the Wexford calendar for the last 2 years because of the other C wordCovid and I’m delighted to see it back home in Pairc Charman this July and look forward to being a part of it to Celebrate, Remember and Fight Back. 

Caroline O’Connell

Three years clear