Cork parent's ordeal as son, aged nine, battles lymphoma

When she found a lump on her son’s neck on a hot summer’s day in August, Ovens mum Genvieve O’Malley had no idea of what lay ahead, she tells CHRIS DUNNE
Cork parent's ordeal as son, aged nine, battles lymphoma

RALLYING ROUND: The O’Malley family, from left, mum Genevieve, Tadhg, Fergus, dad Ruairí, Oisín, and Séamus

LIKE thousands of children across the land, Tadgh O’Malley was eagerly looking forward to going back to school at the end of August, to meet all his friends again after missing out during the pandemic.

“He was so excited at the thought of being back in the classroom and back playing in the school playground. And Tadgh was really looking forward to meeting his new teacher,” says mum, Genevieve.

The fun-loving, lively nine-year-old was never sick. Not even when Genevieve found a lump on his neck and he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Stage 3.

“I’m not sick!” he insisted, when it was confirmed in Crumlin Children’s Hospital that Tadgh had the illness which affects the immune system.

“Rory and I were knocked for six,” admits Genevieve. I found it hard to bring myself to tell Tadgh what was wrong with him. He’s such a trooper.”

“Tadgh had no symptoms whatsoever,” adds Genevieve. “There were no warning signs. He had no temperature. He was never sick; he’s always full of beans.”

A cancer diagnosis at any age can be devastating. “It is really hard to process,” says Genevieve of her experience.

Genevieve, who works as a Doula, a new-born care specialist, supporting mothers bringing new life into the world, was terrified the life of her precious son could be compromised, or worse still, threatened.

“Tadgh was really looking forward to starting back to school again with his brother, Fergus, in third class,” says Genevieve.

Fergus is Tadgh’s wing-man.

“They are identical twins,” says the mum. “My sister has to count the freckles on their faces to tell them apart!”

The O’Malleys and their four sons were living an idyllic life as they frolicked and played in the paddling pool in their back garden in Ovens on a blessed sun-drenched day, August 8 — when the whole country basked in the rays.

“It was one of those magical family summer days,” recalls Genevieve.

While she was cuddling her son in a fluffy towel to warm him up after he got out of the paddling pool, she caught sight of something unusual on Tadgh’s neck that she hadn’t noticed before.

“It was such a beautiful day,” says Genevieve. “It was the last spell of that really hot weather before the storms hit. The boys were having a whale of a time in the paddling pool in the garden. Tadgh was always a real water baby.”

He’s a film star too.

“I filmed Tadgh in the paddling pool and put the video on Facebook!”

He was loving life.

“The boys were practising snorkelling in the paddling pool,” recalls Genevieve. “Tadgh was talking through the snorkel, saying it was the best staycation of his life.”

Then the mood changed.

“When I saw the lump on his neck I turned him round and round,” says Genevieve “I thought maybe he got hit with a ball playing hurling. I didn’t think there was any point worrying too much. Tadgh said the lump wasn’t sore. I put the worry away to back of my mind.”

But the lump didn’t go away.

“In the shower that Sunday night I noticed it more and I decided to bring Tadgh to the doctor on Monday morning to get it checked out.”

Genevieve, so tuned into mothers, infants and children, had a natural instinct all was not well with her son.

“Some deep instinct, probably my maternal instinct, told me this was not good,” says Genevieve.

“We had moved house and changed doctors. The new doctor was on holidays and we got an appointment with Dr Pat Lee, and the hospital took some bloods from Tadgh.”

Genevieve wasn’t unduly worried. And she didn’t think herself or Tadgh were going anywhere soon.

“We had our shorts and tee-shirts on,” says Genevieve. “I had my bikini on underneath my shorts and tee-shirt, thinking we’d be back out enjoying the sun soon.”

The doctor sent mother and son to the Mercy Hospital for further tests.

“The Mercy has the best paediatric oncology unit in the county,” says Genevieve. “So in hindsight, the doctor must have had a hunch Tadgh’s lump on his neck could be cancerous. I will always thank that man.”

Things moved quickly after that.

“Tadgh had an ultra-sound and an X-ray in the Mercy Hospital,” says Genevieve. “They were very thorough.”

Did her honed maternal instincts think something was very wrong with her son?

“There were no alarm bells ringing at that stage,” says Genevieve. “I was still holding on to the fact Tadgh had no symptoms of any illness whatsoever.”

But Genevieve was called into the family room at the Mercy to be informed that Tadgh had another mass of lymph nodes on his chest that were malignant.

“It was a nightmare, absolutely horrific,” says Genevieve. “My husband was not there because of Covid. Because of wearing the bloody mask, I couldn’t breathe properly.”

It was like a horror movie unfolding.

 “Everything happened so quickly,” says Genevieve. 

“To be 100% sure of diagnosis, biopsies had to be taken and Tadgh had to have a CT scan before we travelled to Crumlin Hospital in Dublin.”

The fantastic medical team in Crumlin got their skates on.

“All the team had to converge at once to attend Tadgh. He had to have a lumbar puncture and a biopsy all in one go. I slept in the room with him.”

Genevieve, terribly worried about her little boy, didn’t get much sleep.

“I’d wake up in the morning after eventually going to sleep and find Tagdh gone,” says Genevieve.

He had another agenda.

“He was at the nurse’s station, entertaining them!” says Genevieve.

“He said to me; ‘Oh, mum, I didn’t want to wake you. You need your sleep! So I said I’d keep the nurses company!’”

Tadgh, a real trooper, is a real charmer.

“He could charm the birds from the trees!” says Genevieve.

His twin, Fergus, another charmer and another warrior, set off for the first day back to school alone. 

“It broke my heart,” says Genevieve.

And it broke her heart to tell Tadgh he was a sick little boy who would need to get further treatment in Cork and in Dublin for his condition.

“I didn’t know how to break it to him,” says Genevieve. “He was strong and brave.”

Rory, made of strong stuff like his sons, held the fort at home.

“When we found out on the Thursday that the cancer was stage 3, I knew it wasn’t a good thing,” says Genevieve. Going to Dr Google wasn’t a good thing either.

“I stayed away from that,” says Genevieve. “It could scare me.”

After a pet-scan, Tadgh’s medical treatment programme was mapped out to zap the cancer.

“Four rounds of chemotherapy treatment meant five days in Dublin and two days in Cork,” says Genevieve, a Doula who is now a yoga teacher and mum.

“Hopefully the treatment will be completed in January. If the pet-scans are clear, then Tadgh won’t have to have radiotherapy.”

The stress of travelling on the road every week between hospitals with Tadgh, and keeping the show on the road at home, takes its toll.

“Everybody in our community is very supportive and our friend Clare Collins, who has experience of Crumlin herself, set up a GoFundme page for Tadgh,” says Genevieve.

“Clare’s target was to raise €1,000. But it has exploded. I had to tell her to stop! Rory and I are overwhelmed.”

They are massively grateful for the support for Tadgh in their hour of need.

“Travelling to Dublin so often and having to stay over is a bit of a strain financially and Clare’s gesture is much appreciated,” says Genevieve.

“My work as a Doula is on hold due to Covid and my yoga studio is closed. Any funds left over from the GoFundme page will be donated to Crumlin Hospital; like the Mercy, it is second to none. We are very grateful to both hospitals.”

Genevieve adds: “Our family is very strong and we love each other. Our friends and our community are wonderful helping us out and being there for us. It is so lovely to know so many people care about you.”

Tadgh’s twin, Fergus, is always there for him. “He is the best medicine for Tadgh,” says Genevieve, smiling. “The twins are very, very close. It is incredible to watch them together.”

Tadgh is one of a kind.

“The consultant told us it is very uncommon for children to get Hodgkins Lymphoma,” says Genevieve. “It is the same chance as winning the Lotto. That blew my mind.”

Hodgkins Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, part of the immune system, and can be treated with chemotherapy treatment, radio-therapy treatment, steroids and targeted therapies as well as stem-cell treatment.

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