CORK teenager Leah Murphy is a girl with the world at her feet.
She is an A student, who achieved honours in all her Junior Cert subjects and speaks no less than six languages.
Leah is celebrating her 16th birthday this month and is looking forward to fulfilling her ambition to visit China one day — and speaking that language too.
“The world is her oyster,” says Leah’s mum, Katie.
Nobody knew, though, that this beautiful, health-conscious, and vibrant young girl — a fourth year student at Coláiste an Phiarsaig in Glanmire — could get cancer.
“Leah likes to eat her greens, usually broccoli, with her dinner,” says Katie.
“She never drinks fizzy drinks, just water.
“As a youngster she was never sick, apart from a bout of chicken pox, and she did get bitten once by a dog!
“By comparison, her 11-year-old brother, James, picks up everything. While he is sports mad, Leah enjoys swimming and Zumba dancing.”
Looking at Leah across the table from me, the teenager exudes good health. She has a flawless complexion and gorgeous glossy hair.
It is hard to even imagine that she had a brush with cancer — acinic cell carcinoma — and that she has undergone surgery for it.
“Her scar is on the facelift line,” teases mum Katie. “She had a face-lift at 15!”
The close-knit family, from Dillons Cross, were on holidays in Spain towards the end of the summer of 2014 when their nightmare began.
“Leah seemed out of sorts,” recalls Katie. “She was extra tired, which was strange; she used to take three-and-a-half hour naps.”
This was highly unusual for the lively teenager.
“We paid no more attention and got ready for the new school term. I thought perhaps Leah had had an ear infection,” says Katie.
“I wasn’t unduly worried, but went to the pharmacy where the pharmacist suggested it could be glandular fever or mumps. It was safer to check it out.
“One Wednesday afternoon, we went to the VHI clinic. Leah was 13 at the time,” adds Katie.
“An infection in the salivary glands was suspected, or perhaps a stone in the gland.
“We got antibiotics, but two weeks later, the lump was still there. Our GP prescribed stronger antibiotics and he took Leah’s bloods.
“They came back normal, as in there was no raised white cell count present.”
The A&E department was the next port of call.
“We spent all day in A&E where we eventually met the senior paediatrician who decided on an ultra-sound.”
Were Katie or Leah worried at this point?
“Leah was clueless and more eager to get back to school,” says Katie.
“Back home, I was minding three children belonging to my cousin who was attending a wedding.
“When I eventfully got to see the senior paediatrician again, any cysts were ruled out. Cysts are fluid filled. Not solid.”
Leah was referred to the Ear, Nose and Throat department in the South Infirmary for further head scans.
“Her appointment was supposed to be in a week’s time,” says Katie. “The original scan was delayed in coming across; but when it did, we got an appointment within a few days to see Mr Patrick Sheahan, an Otolaryngologist in the department. He did a biopsy with a fine needle. I asked him, are we in trouble?”
Mr Sheahan consoled mother and daughter. He explained that most lumps and bumps are benign.
Mum Katie recalls: “He said it would be most unusual to find a malignant lump in somebody of Leah’s age. The biopsy came back fine. But the lump had to be removed.”
Katie and Leah breathed a sigh of relief. But any surgery carries concern with it.
“The surgery was scheduled before mid-term,” says Katie. “I must admit I did cry. But the team were great and the anaesthetist made Leah comfortable.”
Mr Positive was standing by.
“Leah’s dad, James, is Mr Positive. He said; there is nothing to worry about. Leah and our son, James, have him wound around their little finger!”
Leah spent a few days in hospital and she had a drain in her neck until the weekend. She was due to go for a check-up on November 11.
But Katie got a call a few days before then, on October 31. She will always remember the date.
“The appointment for Leah’s check-up was to be brought forward,” says Katie. “That made me nervous. My husband, James, was abroad.
“We rocked up to the South Infirmary again. In my head I knew something was amiss. I was asked to wait outside while six or seven staff, Mr Sheahan’s multi-disciplinary team, joined him inside his room.”
Katie went into the room with trepidation. She heard the words that no mother ever wants to hear. “The tumour is back and it is malignant. It is low grade cancer.”
Katie went outside to fetch her daughter.
“I thought; this can’t be happening,” she says. “Leah’s tumour was a parotid tumour, a cancer in her salivary gland.
“I had to digest the information and keep it to myself until I had spoken to James.
“The doctor checked me out and a social worker present asked how I felt. I answered, ‘How am I supposed to feel?’”
Leah appeared unperturbed. It was important to continue on as normal.
“I dropped Leah off to school. There was a science quiz on there that she wanted to take part in,” says Katie. “It took me hours to contact James. I eventually got on to him.”
Then what did she do?
“I rang my uncle, who is a doctor,” says Katie. “He had never heard of the type of cancer Leah had. It is rare and very unusual in general. It tends to affect older people more. 15% of people get it and only 10% get the type of cancer that Leah had.”
Katie’s natural instinct kicked in.
“My job as a mum went into motion,” she says. “I had to prepare Leah for more surgery.”
Leah chips in: “I remember she bought me perfume.”
This time there was more at stake.
“The medical team agreed to meet us any time without any appointment,” says Katie. “Mr Sheahan said, turn up and I will see you.”
Katie and James consulted with the surgeon.
“He told us that the lump was encapsulated within a bubble of a two and a half inch radius,” says Katie. “It just had to be removed.
“No chemotherapy would be required. If the site didn’t heal, radiation therapy might be an option. But because Leah was so young, the long-term side-effects of radiation were taken into account — 30 or 40 years ahead. Watch and wait was the advice and regular baseline scans were recommended.”
Katie and James watched over their daughter day and night.
“We told extended family that Leah had a tumour with a few cancer cells in it. Leah had a brain MRI and CT scan on her thorax to see what her brain and her lungs looked like,” says Katie.
Her energy levels were down.
“She was totally wiped out,” says Katie. “When Leah was recovering, she didn’t go out much and then her friends didn’t call as much.”
The family needed a boost.
“The social worker who met with Leah mentioned CanTeen to her,” says Katie.
is a support group that works with young people who have, or who have had, cancer.
Leah got her mojo back.
“She’s very outgoing,” says Katie. “And she has been going to Irish college regularly over the years. She was in Spanish college last summer, brushing up on her Spanish. Leah is very used to sharing a room with people.” She shared her experience with new friends after attending a day meeting in Dublin. Weekends away followed and then a trip to Alton Towers theme park in England.
“Leah was in such good spirits after being away with CanTeen,” says Katie.
“She was very soon back to her normal, bubbly self. CanTeen provided the support that was tailored for her.” Leah will have regular check-ups for life. Has her experience changed her in any way?
“I think she is more mature and more self-assured,” says Katie. “She is very determined too.” She is also very pro-active.
“Leah has fundraised for CanTeen,” says Katie. “She gives back to them because they gave to her.
“And she donated her hair to the Rapunzel Foundation to make wigs for children who suffer hair loss due to cancer.
“We always taught our children that fundraising is important.
“We supported Down Syndrome Ireland and my husband, James, took part in a cycle for them.” Leah will soon be taking part in a trip of a lifetime organised by UCC when she heads to Shanghai, China.
“I had to write an essay to say why I wanted to go,” says Leah. “Places were limited.” What did she say?
“Well, I said that I have been learning Chinese for three months now,” says Leah.
“I love languages, specifically Mandarin Chinese. I think it is a beautiful language and one day, I hope to be completely fluent in it.
“Also, I love the culture, arts and the cuisine of China.” Mum is justifiably proud of her daughter.
“Three years later, Leah can get on with her life and she can look forward to the future.” And Mum?
“Job done,” says Katie.
CanTeen is a nationwide support group for young people between the ages of 12 and 25, who have, or who have had, cancer.
The organisation aims are to support, empower and develop young people who have been affected by cancer. It gives them the opportunity to meet up in a relaxed, informal setting.
Membership is free and members are asked to only give a small contribution to weekends away.
Phone: 01-872 2012 Email: email@example.com