Corkman: I had 13 hour surgery for rare cancer

A West Cork man who has fought an unusual and often misdiagnosed type of rare cancer has spoken out about the importance of research into the disease, writes CHRIS DUNNE
Corkman: I had 13 hour surgery for rare cancer

Michael Healy was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP).

CHRISTMAS comes early for Bantry man Michael Healy every year since he had ‘The Mother of All Surgeries, (MOAS) to treat his rare cancer.

“I’ll never forget that day in January, 2012,” says Michael, 55, who now lives in Ovens.

“It is like Christmas Day in reverse for us. We celebrate it every year.”

Life was ticking along nicely for Michael, a father of two who is married to Claire, when his world imploded back in 2011, after he was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP).

“I had no signs or no symptoms,” says Michael, who is a business development manager for Eir, and who was back at work six months after his surgery, which was carried out in a specialist centre in the UK.

“At the time, treatment wasn’t available in this country,” adds Michael.

“I feel rather fortunate that I was diagnosed in Cork, referred to a specialist centre in Basingstoke in the UK, where I had surgery performed by world renowned surgeons. While recovery was slow and difficult, I am delighted that I can lead a normal life again.”

 Michael Healy had no signs of symptoms of his disease.
 Michael Healy had no signs of symptoms of his disease.

Life became abnormal for Michael when he received his cancer diagnosis.

“It seemed so unbelievable, all I could do was laugh,” he says.

Ludicrous and all as it seemed, just experiencing a slight pain in his tummy, Michael was wise to go to his GP for advice.

“I had been experiencing a slight pain in my stomach, just below my belt, on and off for a few weeks which I totally ignored,” he says.

“I noticed it more when I was cutting the grass or being active.”

Michael stopped ignoring the niggling pain and got it medically investigated.

“I went to my GP, who did a number of the familiar tests. I was referred to the Bons where I had laparoscopic surgery.”

Laparoscopic surgery is known as minimally invasive surgery; keyhole surgery is a modern surgical technique.

This led to Michael’s diagnosis and ultimately a 13-hour surgery commonly referred to as ‘The Mother of All Surgeries’.

“PMP can be described as unusual and is often misdiagnosed as it is largely unknown even among the medical community,” Michael says.

But he had indeed contracted the extremely rare cancer.

“I was correctly diagnosed with PMP in 2011 and referred to a specialist centre in Basingstoke,” says Michael.

He did his homework about the condition.

“That was probably not a good idea!”

It was a good idea to go the specialist centre in the UK ,where eminent surgeons treat patients with PMP.

“I was lucky to be transferred to the UK for treatment,” says Michael.

“There was no place in Ireland then. Being referred to the specialist centre was vital for me. MOAS is a very complicated meticulous operation.

Michael meticulously explains PMP.

“Some types of appendix tumours can cause PMP, which occurs when the appendix ruptures and the tumour cells leak into the abdominal cavity. The tumour cells secrete a protein gel called mucin that can build up in the abdominal cavity and continue to spread.”

What happens if it’s left untreated?

“Without treatment, its build-up in the abdominal cavity and continues to spread,” says Michael.

“Without treatment, the build-up can lead to problems with the digestive system, intestinal blockages and eventually, death, if left untreated.”

The treatment recommended by the majority of PMP medical experts involves Cytoreductive Surgery (CRS), followed by Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC). This is often referred to as the ‘Mother of All Surgeries’ within the patient community.

What did Michael undergo when he had the ‘Mother of All Surgeries’?

“In my case, MOAS was a complex, 13-hour, life-saving surgery involving the right side of my colon, my spleen, appendix, gall bladder, umbilicus, greater and lesser omentum, as well as stripping my peritoneum, liver and kidneys,” says Michael.

There was more involved.

“This was followed by HIPEC, which is the administration of chemotherapy into the abdomen, heated to 42 degrees for 90 minutes,” says Michael.

Why did he have to go through that?

“The reasoning behind this is that the surgeon will remove all disease that he can see with normal eyesight, and then the heated chemo will burn off and kill any smaller particles.”

He wasn’t done yet.

“There was a further requirement for follow-on chemotherapy for four more days,” Michael says.

“This resulted in a 24-hour monitoring for five days in an Intensive Care Unit, 17 days without food. Being in an induced coma was tough on the body.”

He had other sustenance.

“My wife Claire accompanied me to the UK.”

He counted the days in good hands.

“I spent 23 days in hospital and lots of physiotherapy with fantastic care across a wide-ranging medical team.”

He still wasn’t done.

“And so began the tortuously slow and frustrating two steps forward, three steps backwards regime, battling chronic fatigue and ‘no not today’ syndrome,” says Michael.

“I found it hard to get out of bed. I had no energy or the wherewithal to battle the awful fatigue.”

But Michael, regaining his mojo, took baby steps, little by little getting back to good health.

“The first step was to increase my exercise with lots of walking,” says Michael.

“I improved 1% every day and little by little I got there.

“Five months after surgery I very gingerly started in the gym.”

He walked before he could run.

“Six months after that I took on a 6km run!” says Michael, smiling.

Michael underwent the Mother of All Surgeries for his cancer.
Michael underwent the Mother of All Surgeries for his cancer.

He felt the benefits of regular exercise.

“While recovery is a tough mental battle and emotional battle, this continuous training has been a great benefit, giving me confidence to take on six in-a-row 10k runs from 2014 and 2019 and over 100 park runs,” says Michael.

The 10k run in 2016 acted as a fund-raiser for Breakthrough Cancer Research.

Michael did the grand tour of the Breakthrough Cancer lab in Cork.

“I was blown away by the mind-blowing work that the team do in Breakthrough Cancer Research,” he says.

“I was given a tour of their labs in Cork and I saw first-hand the fantastic work they are doing there.

“There is ongoing research in improving the outcome of cancers that are difficult to treat, like pancreatic cancer for instance. It is great to see.”

Michael can clearly see the road ahead after his amazing ‘Mother of All Surgeries’ journey.

“While recovery is a tough, physical, mental and emotional battle, I am more than fortunate to have returned to normal living after this ordeal,” says Michael.

He had some help from his nearest and dearest.

“The support from my wife and family was crucial to this recovery,” says Michael.

Vital research into the treatment of cancer is on-going.

“Many of the more common cancers are benefitting from research investment worldwide, and thankfully huge progress has been made to improve quality of life and indeed cure many survivors,” says Michael.

More research is needed.

“It would be great if more research was conducted on the lesser known and rare cancers so that those diagnosed would have a realistic chance of a cure and not need to undergo such invasive surgery,” says Michael.

“This surgery is the standard care for the condition, but for some of those who are diagnosed, the spread of the disease is too much and the surgeon cannot perform the surgery so then the patient has no option at that point.

“Hopefully, further research will change that and provide other treatment options in these cases too.”

Michael looks on the bright side of life now.

“I enjoy living from day to day and from year to year,” he says.

“Every day is a good day.”

And he’s looking forward again next year to a the mother and a father of a celebratory Christmas.

HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT CANCER RESEARCH

Breakthrough Cancer Research, following on from their Buy Back Time Campaign, is asking people to donate the value of an hour of their time.

Host a fund-raising event or join BRC online events.

Info on: www.breakthroughcancerresearch.ie/buybacktime.ie Or text BCR to 50300 to donate 4 euro.

BCR charity has strong West Cork ties as it funds Cork Cancer Research Centre, which was set up by the late Professor Gerry O’Sullivan from Caheragh. His daughter Orla Dolan now runs BCR and his son Eoghan is also involved.

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