SINCE the outbreak of Covid-19, GPs across the country have expressed concern that patients with serious ailments may be ignoring their symptoms and avoiding visits to the doctor or emergency departments because of the pandemic.
According to the HSE National Cancer Control Programme, there has been an average drop of 57% in suspected breast, lung, prostate and skin cancer presentations since the introduction of the Covid-19 restrictions.
Midleton man, and father of three, Redmond Maguire, aged 56, didn’t have any symptoms indicating that he had pancreatic cancer; but if he hadn’t gone to his GP to get his blood pressure checked and sought advice about the regular headaches he was experiencing, he might not have survived cancer.
“It is scary that people with potential signs or symptoms of cancer are putting off going to their GPs due to Coronavirus,” says Redmond, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017.
It was just a routine visit to the locum doctor in Ballycotton to get his blood pressure checked.
“I suffered headaches very often for years which were unrelated to my pancreatic cancer diagnosis. The doctor had the information about the headaches in her notes,” Redmond recalls.
“She wanted to check that out. I was working away and everything was fine. Dr Cahill sent me for a second opinion and for further tests to CUH and I had hospital appointments for the next few months in the CUH and in the Mercy Hospital, undergoing respiratory tests, and heart and kidney tests involving scans and ECGs.”
Was he worried?
“I wasn’t worried,” says Redmond.
“I had no symptoms that anything was untoward. I had the odd headache, but I had no reason to worry. There was no mention of cancer. The doctors were trying to get to the bottom of what was causing the headaches.”
Further investigations and a CT scan in March prompted a biopsy.
“This was the usual procedure,” Redmond says.
“No alarm bells were ringing. I had no stomach problems.”
In July, 2017, Redmond was referred to Dr Criostoir O’Suilleabhain, Consultant Gastrointestinal Hepatobilary Pancreatic surgeon in the Mercy.
He was in for a shock.
“I remember the appointment was at 11am in Dr O’ Suillabhain’s rooms,” says Redmond.
“He told me that cancer cells had been detected on the duodenum. I got a fair shock.”
Dr O’Suillabhain told Redmond something else.
“He said time was of the essence and that he’d operate as soon as possible. I was a young age. That was in my favour. Dr O’Suillabhain gave me a four-page A4 brochure to read about the pancreas and the duodenum. I read the first paragraph and put it away in the kitchen cupboard! I don’t think I ever read it in full.”
Redmond was scheduled to have an operation called the Whipple procedure, removing the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine (duodenum), the gall bladder and the bile duct. The remaining organs are re-attached to allow the digestion of food normally after surgery.
Redmond was shocked.
“It was a 12 hour operation,” he says. “Before the surgery I had to be assessed, going through tests to make sure my heart was capable of going through such a serious operation.
“They concluded at the end of August and the operation was to take place on September 7 in the CUH.”
He felt lucky.
“If my GP hadn’t been so insistent that I follow up with further tests to do with the headaches, the cancer may never have been detected and it may have been too late to treat it successfully.”
Redmond knew he was in good hands to ensure a successful outcome.
“The medical teams in the CUH and in the Mercy are brilliant,” he says.
“I was 100% aware of the extent of the operation; I blocked it out some of the time. My boss, Ger, sat me down and told me the most important thing was to get me well.”
Redmond’s, fiancée, Alison, and his family rallied around.
“My brother Dan brought me to hospital on the day the operation was scheduled at 7am.”
What was he thinking?
“I was thinking about my three kids,” says Redmond.
“My illness was never an issue and I was confident I’d survive it. But my condition impacted when I thought about my kids.”
Redmond is a typical dad.
“My son, Cian, 17, plays soccer,” he says. “I was thinking, how would he get to training?”
Redmond had other things on his mind when he went down to theatre in CUH for the life-saving operation.
“I remember looking at the clock after I got the epidural injection and then the general anaesthetic. It was 7.20am.
“The next time I saw the time on the clock was at 8.50pm that night.”
He noticed something else when he woke up from the operation.
“I had 50 staples across my stomach. Up one side and down the other like a V shape upside down. It was a severe scar and I was on a lot of medication for pain relief.
“I had two drains stitched into the side of my stomach. I still remember when the oxygen levels in my blood dropped and the medical staff had a job to find a vein to get the meds into me. They found a vein at the top of my wrist near the thumb where there is very little skin and is very near the bone. I still cringe at the thought of that.”
Redmond spent two and a half weeks in hospital but he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“A multi-disciplinary meeting was held to discuss my case,” he says.
“It was decided because of the close proximity of other organs near the duodenum where the cancer cells were, I should have chemotherapy treatment as a precautionary measure.
“That was a bit of a bombshell, especially after all I had already been through,” says Redmond.
“Alison and I were invited to her niece’s wedding in Dromoland Castle. After that, in November 2017, I started six months of chemotherapy treatment that continued until April, 2018. I was on 26 tablets a day and 3,300 mg strength of chemo tablets every day.”
The cocktail of medications and the chemo-therapy treatment, while gruelling, did the job. The weather then was gruelling too.
“It was the time of the bad snow!” says Redmond.
“I became very familiar with St Theresa’s ward in the Mercy..
“There were lots of volunteers and family members who offered to drive me to hospital. My neighbours were great. The volunteer drivers with The Irish Cancer Society, the Care to Drive Scheme, are marvellous. The driver would promptly collect me, wait for me and bring me home again.”
Other people were in his corner.
“My late mother prayed for me, and she lit candles at a shrine at home. I went to stay with my brother Dan and his wife, Rose, to recuperate. Everyone rallied around.”
Redmond began to rally and get well again.
“I went back to see Dr O’ Suilleabhain and his team in the second week of January this year,” says Redmond.
It wasn’t a long consultation.
“He told me not to sit down! All was clear,” says Redmond.
“It was a weight off my shoulders.”
Redmond, three years after his cancer journey, is back at work and looking forward to his wedding day when he marries Alison next year.
“If I hadn’t gone to see my GP to check my blood pressure and headaches, I would be none the wiser that there was anything wrong with me,” he says.
“In terms of pancreatic cancer, there are very few symptoms and when symptoms do raise their ugly head, it may be too late in a lot of cases and it is gone into the organs too far and treatment is a hard thing to go through.
“I understand that people are concerned and afraid of going into hospitals due to coronavirus. But everything is in place. Everyone is doing their best. Patients can be seen and treated safely.”
Redmond can look forward to the future now.
“My appetite isn’t what it used to be; but that’s OK. And I am careful when lifting things. The scar is still a bit tender. I have regular six monthly check-ups to make sure all is well.”
All is well that ends well.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” says Redmond.
“Because of the insistence of my doctor in Ballycotton, I went for tests and the cancer showed up.”
Life goes on, even during the current pandemic crisis.
“Cian is back training with Corkbeg soccer club. Molly, aged 16, and Enya, aged 15, are off school, so no exams.”
And they can all look forward to living happily ever after.
SUPPORT: The Irish Cancer Support line is open seven days a week, you can call 1800 200 700.