WHEN Youghal woman Shannen Bulman Joyce was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in July, 2014, when she was just 19 years old, she was somebody’s daughter.
When the cancer re-occurred, almost five years to the day later, Shannen was Roísín’s mother.
“I didn’t think I was that unlucky to get cancer twice by the age of 24,” says Shannen, then a first year CIT student.
She underwent a bone marrow biopsy and gruelling chemotherapy treatment for 18 weeks.
“It can happen to anybody again,” says Shannen, recalling the first time she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and who is getting on with her life now.
“Five years later, I’m thankful I’m in a much better place now. And mentally I’m coping much better.
“I remember that May/June of 2014 feeling tired with no energy. I thought first year in college and having a part time job in JD’s Bar Youghal, was taking it out of me. Then I found a lump on my groin.
“Because I played camogie and I was always getting bruises and bumps, I didn’t take much notice. My GP prescribed anti-inflammatories and pain-killers.”
But when she started vomiting and she collapsed at home, Shannen did take more notice. It was time to seek further medical advice. She was sent to the A&E unit.
“My mother got a real shock when I collapsed,” says Shannen.
“I could hardly stand up and I couldn’t keep any food down. I was stick thin.”
After undergoing numerous CT scans, a biopsy confirmed that Shannen had Non-Hodgkin’s Lympoma.
She recalls: “I’ll never forget it. I started treatment six days later.”
She will certainly never forget huddling together with all the family at home in the kitchen after receiving the shock diagnosis when she was just a teenager. They were all there for her.
“My family, my nan and the camogie girls were just great.
“I went to St Therese’s ward in the Mercy Hospital every third Thursday for treatment,” says Shannen.
“At one stage I was taking up to 22 tablets a day including steroids.
“The doctors and nurses were wonderful. But the treatment was torture. It took me days to recover afterwards.”
She found it hard to recover from the side- effects.
“Losing my hair first time round at 19 was a massive thing for me,” says Shannen.
“I remember being fierce upset when I lost my eye-lashes.
“But if that was a consequence of getting better, then it was OK. There were far bigger things to overcome.”
Shannen, with the steadfast support of her family, friends, and her community, bravely fought the disease and she came out the other side.
“I responded well to treatment. After three rounds of chemotherapy, there was no evidence of cancer, which was a huge relief to me and to my parents. I completed the treatment.
“When Dr O’Rielly told me I had the all-clear, it was surreal,” says Shannen.
“I couldn’t believe it. I took 12 months off to build myself up.”
She got on with the rest of her life. It began again.
“I loved the prospect of going back to work in Laya Healthcare,” says Shannen.
“My team leader, Aisling, told me I had a promising career ahead of me. I would go up the corporate ladder.”
Things were looking up. She fell in love.
“I met Barry and I got pregnant with our daughter, Roísín. We were looking forward to buying our own house and going on a family holiday. I was back doing gym classes and playing camogie.”
Then, when she least expected it, the spectre of cancer reared its ugly head once more.
“I had cramps in my stomach after doing a circuit class and I had a pain in my leg that felt like a growing pain,” says Shannen.
“I felt more tired too, but then I was running around after a three-year-old.”
She felt a familiar lump in her groin.
“I didn’t want to be a drama queen,” says Shannen.
“I called Barry. I said, ‘tell me it’s not there’. I couldn’t go through it all again.”
But she did.
“I had to go to South Doc straight-away,” says Shannen.
“The doctor thought it was a swollen node. He suggested I go to A&E, but the CT scan unit was closed and I’d have to wait 12 hours until the morning.”
It was a long night.
“We went home and drank coffee. I thought ‘what if?’ No, it won’t be. But what if?”
If the cancer was back, Shannen was determined to have a positive mindset.
“It is rare for the cancer to reoccur after five years. But unfortunately that’s what happened. I felt I could cope.” says Shannen.
She placed her belief in the man she trusted most going through her second heart-breaking cancer journey.
“Seamus O’Rielly has a great poker face and he appears to be laid back. He’s a great friend. I trust him with my life,” says Shannen.
“He discussed the game plan with me for stage 3 Lymphoma. We decided to drive on.”
How did Shannen navigate the thought of being there, having done that and having to do it all over again?
“Never in a million years did I think I’d get cancer again,” says Shannen.
“It was in the lymph nodes in my groin, chest and under my breast bone. The good news was it was only in the lymph nodes, it hadn’t spread to any other organ in my body.”
It was tough and it was unfair.
“Yes, it was,” says Shannen.
“But although overwhelmed, I felt it was nothing we couldn’t overcome.
“Life was so good. I had my dream job, an amazing partner, a gorgeous daughter, a brilliant family and friends.”
And she had cancer again. This time there was other things to consider. The reality of the treatment plan would hinder chances of another baby.
“After more intense rounds of chemotherapy in the Mercy, the next step was to go to Dublin for stem-cell treatment,” says Shannen.
“First, I had to go through fertility treatment, which was an emotional and soul-destroying process, involving daily injections and regular weekly trips to the Rotunda Dublin for scans to monitor follicle growth and the hormone levels. But at least it was good to have the option,” says Shannen.
“Having no control over my fertility or my eggs played havoc with my mind. As the number of harvested eggs reduced from 18, 15, to six, it was mind-boggling. The chances of having a brother or a sister for Roísin in the future were slim. We are so lucky to have her.”
This time around, Shannen had different fears to face.
“The first time I got cancer, I worried about losing my hair,” she says.
“This time I feared not getting to marry Barry, missing Roísín’s first day at school, missing her growing up and not seeing the Cork hurlers win another All-Ireland.”
Shannen began the rigorous roller-coaster all over again to rid her body of cancer.
“In between the serious bouts of chemotherapy treatment in the Mercy, I had a two hour break. One day I went to Scoozi’s for a burger!”
Saying goodbye to Roísin before she headed off to St James’ Hospital, Dublin, on the biggest journey of her life, the young mother was hoping to be back at home in Youghal with her loved ones for Christmas.
“I was in isolation prior to and after the transplant,” says Shannen.
“The procedure took less than four hours and it resembled dialysis treatment for kidney failure. I had a thick tube inserted in my neck which was really painful.
“Afterwards was a bit of a blur I remember waking up at different times but I have no memory of Barry or my dad being beside me. I know Barry felt really frightened. He said two days went by without opening my eyes once. It was like being in a coma.”
It was a difficult time for all concerned.
“It was a degrading time too,” says Shannen.
“Dad had to take me to the toilet. I was like a baby again. My immune system was wiped and I had horrible mouth blisters and heartburn.”
Shanne, bravely battling for her life a second time, promised herself she’d get better.
And in 2020 she’s now looking forward to a better year.
“I still have fatigue,” she says.
“I was wiped out at Christmas, spending a lot of time in bed.”
She spends a lot of precious time with Roísín and her beloved family.
“Roísín goes to playschool four days a week. When I collect her we go for a walk on the boardwalk. And she loves going to Aldi!”
Shannen’s body might need a bit more time to re-boot after a second cancer journey, but her mind is going at the rate of 90.
“My mind is not tired,” says Shannen.
“I’m planning trips and I’m planning to do public speaking.”
She enjoys the pleasures in life.
“I eat chocolate! Life is so short. I know that,” says Shannen.
She knows life isn’t always fair.
“Yes. Sometimes I think; it’s not fair,” says Shannen.
“Then I snap out of it.”
She doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
“I know my hair will grow back again. It’s no big deal. I get checked every three months and I urge everyone to listen to their body. It doesn’t lie.”
Shannen doesn’t live in fear of cancer anymore and says: “I stay positive.”
She protects herself with healthy living now that she has a lot of living to do.
Daffodil Day takes place on Friday, March 27. The Irish Cancer Society is asking people to hold an event, volunteer, or buy a daffodil to raise vital funds to support cancer patients and their families across Ireland.
Averil Power, Chief Executive of the Irish Cancer Society, said: “We are very lucky to have Shannen using her voice to fight for people and families affected by cancer. She is an inspirational young woman and a wonderful advocate for Daffodil Day.
“Every three minutes, somebody like Shannen receives a cancer diagnosis in Ireland, and the number of people getting cancer is growing. The Irish Cancer Society relies on public donations to fund 97% of its income, and needs to raise €4million on Daffodil Day alone.
“This money is used to fund crucial services like the Daffodil Centres, free counselling and our Volunteer Driver Service. We want our services to be available for everyone who needs them. We simply cannot do this without the public’s support.”
Boots Ireland has been in partnership with the Society since 2012, working together to increase awareness, promote prevention and support people living with cancer.
The pharmacy chain has raised €1.7million for the Society and is sponsoring Daffodil Day for the third year in a row. For more see www.cancer.ie