IT was a big shock when young Cork mother of four Elaine Duggan was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer four years ago.
“I had no signs.” says Elaine, who lives in Midleton and who has been in remission now two years.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke; I wasn’t over the age of 55. I was relatively young and healthy.”
Elaine underwent an aggressive course of chemotherapy as well as radiation, and had two thirds of her stomach removed.
“I didn’t fit the criteria,” she adds, “but cancer is an indiscriminate disease.”
How did she deal with the diagnosis?
“I said, ‘I have it; I don’t want it; let’s get rid of it’.”
And she did.
Elaine’s voice is part of the rallying cry being issued to walkers and runners to lace up their trainers and take part in this year’s Relay For Life, which raises vital funds for the Irish Cancer Society and takes place on Thursday.
“The 24-hour event, now in its third year, brings the whole community together and celebrates the lives of cancer survivors,” explains Elaine, who will be attending the event near her home in Midleton in August, with an information evening taking place this week.
“It a momentous occasion. Families, doctors, nurses; they all join in. A Candle of Hope is lit in the memory of a loved one or to support a loved one.
“It is a beautiful sight to see the huge circle of lit candles around the pitch at the CBS, Midleton. It is very moving.”
The event raised more than €20,000 last year for the Irish Cancer Society.
“We were blown away with the support last year’s event received,” says Elaine. “This year the committee is hoping to increase numbers of relay teams even more. Vital funds are raised by the 24 hour event. It represents the fightback by increasing knowledge of cancer. The funds go towards vital research and to the services of the Irish Cancer Society.”
Relay For Life highlights the importance of defeating cancer. Elaine was determined that she would defeat it.
“When my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, he said to his doctor, ‘I’ll do what my daughter did’,” says Elaine.
“The doctor asked dad, ‘Is she a doctor?’ He said No, but he said that I had a good attitude.”
Elaine wasn’t battle-ready; but she was prepared to fight.
“I wouldn’t be considered a typical candidate for oesophageal cancer,” she says, recalling how her battle began.
“My husband Pat, and I, were doing the last minute Christmas shopping. We stopped off for a coffee and a sandwich. I always remember I was eating a brown bread turkey sandwich and it seemed to ‘go down the wrong way’. I didn’t take a whole lot of notice. That can sometimes happen.
“But as the week went on, I had more difficulty swallowing. My GP gave me antibiotics and an injection into the mouth. But I didn’t get any better. The difficulty swallowing got worse. Everything was getting stuck.”
A scan at the Mercy University Hospital showed signs of a hernia.
“Loads of people get hernias,” says Elaine. “I was given some medication, but my swallow got worse.”
The mum panicked when she was on the school run one morning.
“The school is only minutes away from us,” recalls Elaine. “I drank a glass of water before I left home. In the car, I had to bring it back up again in a plastic tub. I kept getting sick.”
She was scheduled for another scan in July.
“It was a routine scan to follow up on the hernia,” says Elaine. “But by now I was worried. I was losing weight. I requested that the scan be brought forward. So the next scan was scheduled for June 21.”
Elaine had a feeling that she had to be brave.
“I remember Dr Tom Murphy came into the ward. He asked me if it was OK if he sat on the bed. It was just him and me; just the two of us. I knew by his face and by his demeanour that things weren’t good.”
What did Dr Murphy say?
“He said, ‘I have some news. We need to talk’.”
Elaine had a 5cm tumour in her oesophagus. It was malignant.
“The tumour had grown in 14 weeks,” says Elaine. “That’s how aggressive it was.
“There were no warnings. No signs. The previous biopsies had shown no signs that there was anything amiss.”
Elaine found the news hard to take in.
“From nothing;,there was now a growth of 5cm in my oesophagus.”
She needed answers.
“I said; ‘what do we do?”
The tumour had to be targeted.
“I had a pet-scan where a radioactive sugar liquid in the body attracts the cancer cells,” explains Elaine. “When the sugar attracts the cancer cells; they glow.
“The cancer cells were only in the oesophagus, which is from the back of the teeth to the tip of the tummy. The tumour took up an eighth of the 30cm area.”
Elaine knew now what she was fighting. “It was scary-serious,” she says.
What was she thinking?
“My first thoughts were about my four kids. And my dum and dad. They were in bits. I was always the strong one in the family; the go-to girl. I’m the eldest of seven. I get phone-calls from family members asking me how to line a cake tin. My sister in the UK rings me to ask if my niece can come and stay for the weekend.”
Elaine got ready for the fight.
“I just wanted it gone,” she says.
She had good support.
“My parents drove down from Limerick to be with me. They came to Cork every Tuesday to drive me to the hospital for my treatment.”
Bad days arrived.
“Yes, I had the can-do attitude,” says Elaine. “But often, I would wake up and say; do I have to go today?”
But she didn’t lie down.
Elaine underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment back-to-back.
“I piggy-backed the chemotherapy and the radiotherapy together,” she says. “For seven weeks, every Tuesday, I had chemotherapy in the Mercy. Then it was across the city to the CUH. I had radiotherapy every day for seven weeks in CUH.”
Elaine often got battle weary.
“I was tired,” she admits. “I decided to cut my hair short. I always had long hair. I thought it would be better short. I didn’t want to see it on the pillow. Although it wasn’t noticeable, I never wore a wig; only a hat in the winter.”
Elaine finished her treatment on August 23.
“The tumour was the width of my oesophagus,” she says. “It was now detached from the sides so that it was easier to get at so it could be removed.”
She hada little bit of time to rally herself.
“I had four weeks to build myself up before surgery,” says Elaine. “I had a PEG feeding tube in my tummy from June until October, which was a reminder that something was wrong with me. I turned it off in the evening and tried to sleep. The tube needed a lot of maintenance; it had to be flushed out regularly in case it got clogged up.”
Elaine paced herself for the final battle.
“I lived my life in blocks,” she says. “When I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy in August and the end of September, I lived that block. Then, with four weeks off, I started another block where I would try and walk a bit to build up my fitness and for my heart.
“The next block was surgery; I couldn’t think of anything else.”
The troops rallied.
“Pat kept working,” says Elaine. “The days I was too tired to drive anywhere, my parents came. I was weary. My bones were heavy. The tiredness drained me.”
She gathered all her resources to be rid of the cancer.
“I wanted it gone,” says Elaine. “On the day of surgery in the Mercy, at 7am, I wanted to go straight up to theatre and get rid of it.”
The surgery took eight and a half hours.
“I was Mr Murphy’s only surgery that day,” says Elaine. “It was done in two stages. My oesophagus was removed and two thirds of my tummy. A new oesophagus was created.
“The surgery was done through the front and the side. My right lung was deflated and the tumour was taken out through my back. I had a stent in my heart because of a previous clot in my lung.”
Elaine may have been battle-scarred. But she stood firm.
“I was out walking in the ward that night at 11.pm,” she recalls. “Maybe I was on a high from the drugs!”
A small price was paid.
“My hair did fall out after the surgery,” says Elaine. “I looked in the mirror. I thought I looked like a witch!
“My sister was getting married and I thought; what about my hair? After all, it is part of what we are.”
Elaine regained her strength.
“I remember the first thing I ate was chicken broth. “I had no appetite much; I ate to live instead of living to eat.
“I often enjoyed going for a Chinese meal with pals, but that stopped. My diet changed to salads, scrambled eggs, homemade soup. I drank lots of coffee. My stomach doesn’t do the same job as before. It can’t absorb the essential fats that we need. Tablets containing enzymes do that job.
“I had pain afterwards, yes, but I have a high pain threshold. My diaphragm was weak and a diaphragmatic hernia occurred. But, look, those are the things that can happen.”
Other things changed.
“Cancer changes your outlook,” says Elaine. “You don’t sweat the small stuff. You don’t get into a panic if things aren’t sorted.”
Items aren’t stashed away.
“I wear my good jewellery much more often now,” says Elaine. “It’s not just for ‘good-wear.’ The ‘good’ dress is worn very often too.”
Elaine counts her blessings.
“My parents are amazing people. Pat kept everything going at home.
“I have an amazing family. And I know that I am one of the lucky ones.”
And her sister’s wedding?
“It was fabulous,” says Elaine. “I made her wedding cake.”
Relay for Life takes place on August 26 at CBS Secondary School, Midleton.
An information night is being held at Midleton Park Hotel on Thursday, May 11 at 8pm.
Cancer Nurseline Freephone: 1800 200 700.