SIX-year-old Kate Byrne is a proud owner of two passports — one Irish and one Australian. She is also proud of her scar, the legacy of her battle with juvenile melanoma.
“I tell Kate that she has a Princess Scar,” says mum Caroline.
Kate’s pretty face is now unmarked, it’s just lit up by her sunny smile.
An outdoor girl — “full of the joys of life,” says Caroline, “she is very sporty” — who loves company and loves swimming, ballet and tennis, Kate showed off her impressive gymnastic skills when she did cart-wheels at last year’s Relay for Life, held in CBS Midleton.
“We camped out and heard the zip opening in the tent and Kate did a lap of the track in her onesie,” says Caroline. “She had already done the opening Survivor’s lap at 3pm.”
Now Kate is preparing to take part in this year’s Relay for Life next month, happy that she has got the all-clear from the disease.
“Kate really understood and embraced Relay for Life last year,” says Caroline. “She was the youngest participant.
“We got involved through our near neighbour, Caoimhe, whose mother, Rose, is very involved in Relay for Life.
“Kate was doing cart-wheels during the night. She loves wearing her purple tee-shirt that signifies she is a survivor.”
Relay for Life is a 24 hour event that brings the whole community together to celebrate the lives of cancer survivors, and remember those lost to the disease. It also increases knowledge of cancer and raises money to fund research and services of the Irish Cancer Society.
Cancer survivors take on the first lap at 3pm. Teams of family members and friends commit to one member of the team walking round the track at all times. At the same time a festival of fun, entertainment and community takes place which unites everybody.
“Our team last year was called ‘You are my Sunshine’,” says Caroline, who together with family and friends is taking part again in Relay for Life this year on August 26. “It signifies having awareness around the sun.
“It is very poignant when the Candle of Hope is lit signifying a lost loved one or in support of a loved one affected by cancer,” says Caroline.
“It is also a wonderful opportunity for self- reflection. The atmosphere is really special.”
Caroline reflects back to the beginning of her daughter’s journey.
She, her husband Vinnie, together with their children, Jack and Kate, returned to Ireland from a stint in Sydney, Australia, and settled in Midleton.
“Jack was four and Kate was one and a half,” says Caroline.
“In September, 2013, I decided to bring Kate to our GP. She had a little cyst below her eye.”
Katie also had a few freckles from her Irish heritage.
“I noticed one of her freckles seemed raised,” says Caroline. “It didn’t sit well with me.”
Kate was referred to ophthalmologist, Gerard O’Connor, and dermatologist Dr Billy O’Connor.
Kate had a type of skin lesion affecting the epidermis and the dermis known as Splitz Nevus, which is common in children.
“The cyst and the freckle was to be removed at the same time; the freckle sliced off by scalpel,” says Caroline.
The procedure was straightforward enough.
“We weren’t unduly concerned,” says Caroline. “The likelihood was that it wasn’t anything sinister.”
But in May, 2014, the freckle resurfaced and so did another cyst in Kate’s eye.
“The same surgery similar to the first one was required,” says Caroline. “This time the freckle was surgically removed and examined through pathology.
“I got a copy of the pathology report from Gerard O’Connor. He is a lovely man. Kate and I got on very well with him.”
“In June, the pathology report returned inconclusive.
“The dermatologist phoned me to say he had given the report to CUH for a second opinion,” said Caroline. “A multi-disciplinary team in the hospital examined the slides and recommended that they should be sent to America for further examination.
“In the meantime, the margins around the site were to close and they needed to be widened. The original scar needed to settle before this surgery. The scar, consisting of six stitches required six weeks to knit.”
This was the first surgical treatment for melanoma.
“It was all a bit worrying,” admits Caroline. “I got a call from Mr Michael O’Shaughnessy’s secretary in CUH to arrange an appointment to meet with him. He is a plastic surgeon. We met him in June. He was going to perform the surgery. It was agreed that the pathology was to be sent to America.”
Everyday life went on. The Byrne residence was undergoing renovations and the family were to move in that August, the same month as Katie’s surgery.
“We had been house-sitting for a good friend of ours,” says Caroline. “We were temporarily dog-sitting a Siberian Sheepdog. That went with the job!”
Any surgery is a big deal. Naturally Kate’s parents were concerned.
“Kate had never been sick,” says Caroline. “She only ever had two antibiotics.
“I wanted to know how big this surgery was going to be and I was thinking about Kate’s little face.” Kate was in good hands. She was full of beans when she woke up after her surgery, which was performed by Mr O’Shaughnessy.
Caroline smiles. “Kate is one of the 5%-10% of children who come out poorly from anaesthetic. She actually becomes almost psychotic. Kate rips off her Freddie tube when she wakes up. She starts screaming, then she screams even louder at the top of her lungs.”
She was soon placated.
“She had Coco-pops and she was happy out.”
Her scar was nine inches. Mr O’Shaugnessy did a good job.
“The scar was hardly visible,” says Caroline.
The family were happy that life could return to normal. Katie was looking forward to starting playschool.
“If I forgot to put on bio-oil on her scar; Kate reminded me,” says Caroline.
The youngster was looking forward to her fourth birthday when the diagnosis came back from America in February, 2015.
“Kate had juvenile melanoma,” says Caroline. “We came to terms that she now has this. Spitzoid implies from birth, even though there was no evidence of this.”
In April, 2015, Kate had another Chalazian cyst removed under a general anaesthetic.
Caroline kept a close eye on her daughter. She checked Kate’s glands in her neck with vigilance. They were swollen off and on.
“We returned to Mr O’Connor in August due to concern over Kate’s lymph’s in her neck,” says Caroline. “Our GP monitored her as well and prescribed an antibiotic as a precaution. He decided to send Kate’s file to Crumlin Children’s Hospital for Professor Alan Irvine to examine.
“Professor Irvine is an oncologist, specialising in dermatology. He was very happy with the level of care Kate was receiving and he was to be kept in the loop regarding any developments.
“The following January, Kate was referred to paediatrician Dr Niamh Lynch who, in consultation with Professor Irvine, decided that Kate should have biopsies of her lymph glands done to rule out any secondary sites.”
Meanwhile, life in the Byrne household continued to function. Jack went off to school every day. Vinnie went to work. Caroline went to teach her pupils maths and PE at Glanmire Community School every day.
“It never impacted on school,” says Caroline. “I tended not to talk about it. My principal was very understanding and Vinnie was a great support. He is a real hands-on dad.”
The couple were strong for each other.
“It was like I had a sense of preservation and I wasn’t going to crumble,” says Caroline. “We had every confidence in Kate’s team.”
Mr Harney did the biopsies. Kate woke up from the anaesthetic fighting fit.
“She screamed even louder!” says Caroline.
“Kate loves Generation dolls. I got her another one and a Jeep one too. I promised her a trip to Smyths and told her she could sleep in my bed. It took a while to calm her down. I told her that she would have no more ‘funny spots’,” says Caroline. “I told her, no more, darling.”
She and Vinnie calmly waited for the results that would determine their daughter’s fate.
“This was the hardest wait,” says Caroline. “I knew if they found anything this time, it wasn’t good news.”
The results were clear.
“When Mr Harney phoned me, I could sense him smiling down the phone,” says Caroline.
“We were so relieved. Things could have panned out very differently. I know that others’ cancer journeys are not straightforward.”
Kate is in Senior Infants now at Gaelscoil Mhainistir Na Corann. She attends Dr O’Connor every 12 months and will continue to do so.
“Her slides are often presented at medical conferences,” says Caroline.
Caroline joined the committee for Relay for Life. “I like having an input in the special event,” she says.
She and Kate have a special bond.
“All children are unique,” says Caroline. “But you know, I always felt that Kate was that little bit more special.”
She is a little trooper.
“Kate is cute. Nobody will rail-road her,” says Caroline.
Eight-year-old Jack doesn’t take a back seat.
“He is very social-conscious,” says Caroline. “He volunteers and helps out with the homeless.”
And the family have another member to look after.
“We have our own dog now,” says Caroline with a laugh. “Skippy is very much part of the family.”
Caroline says she is always aware that protection from the sun is important.
“Kate is in the habit of wearing her hat and her sun-screen,” says Caroline.
The family are looking forward to the Relay for Life event, meeting old friends and camping out under the stars.
“Katie is really looking forward to it,” says Caroline. “She can’t wait. She had such a good time last year.”
Look out for her. She’ll be the little girl in the purple tee- shirt doing cart-wheels.
Relay for Life, Midleton CBS, August 26, 3pm. See cancer.ie/cancer-information/melanoma