WALKING for hope from Galway to Cork... that’s what Robert O’Leary decided to do, after facing down a cancer diagnosis.
The Kinsale man undertook the virtual 188km walk every day in July to raise funds for the medical teams in CUH and University Hospital Galway that backed his recovery.
Family, friends, and clubs joined Robert on his journey to repay a debt of gratitude to the medical staff at the Multiple Myeloma Unit at CUH and the Stem Cell Unit at UGH.
Robert, 60, was motivated by the wonderful care he received at both hospitals, and his son, Andrew, joined him on his trek.
Multiple Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow and, six years on from his diagnosis, Robert says gratefully.
“My cancer is now in remission. The support for my walk has been massive. I’m blown away.”
Robert was always healthy prior to his diagnosis and says: “I always lived a full, active life. I like walking and visiting family and friends. I like all sports, especially GAA.”
His fight began with a simple blood test in 2015, which revealed the life-threatening condition Multiple Myeloma.
“I went to see my doctor for an unrelated condition,” says Robert.
“He suggested meds for acid reflux that I was experiencing. I had a pain high up on my breast bone.
“After my doctor carried out blood tests, I got a call two days later saying something had shown up in my bloods. He suggested I go to in A&E in CUH the next morning. It being a Saturday, I was a bit reluctant to go.”
“I tried to fob off my doctor, saying I felt much better now, but in a nice and caring way, he convinced me to go to A &E.”
There they checked Robert over and did some X-rays and more blood tests.
“A report back to my doctor confirmed more blood deficiencies. Following this, my doctor referred me on to the Haematology Team at CUH. During this visit I was told I had a protein abnormality in my blood.”
“Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer, was mentioned. Nobody wants to hear the word cancer.
“This was all new to me, I was all over the place. I was hoping I’d be able to manage this.”
Robert recalls: “I will always remember one thing that stands out during my first visit to my specialist. She said to me; this is manageable and that was good enough for me. So I went with that.”
Subsequent hospital visits and bone marrow biopsies confirmed Multiple Myeloma.
“So, three months on from a visit to my doctor, I began a six month course of weekly chemotherapy, steroids and bone strengthening treatments at the Haematology Dunmanway Day Unit at CUH,” says Robert.
“It was overwhelming, but I was lucky to have great support from Andrew, close family, relatives and friends. The medical team were outstanding.
“I was fortunate I didn’t have a long journey to the hospital. My son or brother would drive me every week for treatment at CUH. I met patients from Cork, Kerry, and many other counties who had to travel long distances for their treatment, which wasn’t easy. The medical team at CUH are outstanding.”
They kept a close eye on Robert.
“Things were going well and in February/ March, there was mention of a stem cell transplant. I went to Galway and was deemed a suitable candidate for the procedure. I continued my weekly treatment at CUH.”
Time moved on.
“In May, I went to University Hospital Galway for my stem cell harvesting. A week prior to this I had high-dose chemo-therapy treatment in CUH, and then every day for the next seven days,” says Robert.
“I had to inject myself with growth factors daily. These help to extract the stem cell out of the bone marrow and into the blood stream.”
“The stem cell harvesting and transplant part of it is not painful,” adds Robert.
“But all the treatments in the week or weeks prior to them are pretty severe and all the machinery around it can be pretty unnerving.”
It was a scary time for the Kinsale man.
“All this was followed by long periods of isolation, follow-up treatments and bone marrow biopsies.”
The treatment involveds being hooked up to a machine for several hours. “Millions of immature stem cells and plasma cells are collected. There is a lot of intense lab work involved in stem cell harvesting and transplant.”
All the while, Robert’s treatments were still ongoing at CUH.
Two months later, in July, he was referred to Galway for his stem cell transplant.
“My stem cells were thawed out in the stem-cell transplant room and 30 minutes later my transplant was completed.”
After a few days at UHG, Robert travelled by ambulance to CUH to begin 28 days of isolation to prevent infections. He was in good hands.
“Again, I received the most wonderful treatment around the clock,” says Robert.
“My blood counts had completely crashed due to high-dose chemotherapy. Due to the fantastic care and professionalism of my medical team, when the blood counts started to improve, I started to regain my strength and I was allowed out of my room.”
Robert was on the way back to good health.
“With the great care and attention of all, and I mean all, I was able to begin exercise.”
Small steps became bigger steps.
“Slowly but surely my recovery was in motion,” says Robert. “I am truly grateful to all my medical team. On August 19, 2016, I was released from hospital and with the continued support of my medical team, Andrew, family, friends and relations, I am doing well.”
So much so that he planned his charity walk.
“I also want to highlight that cancer need not be a death sentence,” says Robert. “Multiple Myeloma is not curable at this time but it is treatable and I am an example of how the disease can be checked with regular medical examination and maintenance therapy.”
Robert has some good advice to offer people.
“Sometimes it is a good idea to take someone with you to your doctor or specialist appointments for moral support,” he says. “They may be better able to take in what the specialist is saying. Having someone with you can help you deal with any news you get.”
Sometimes the news is hard to take in.
“You are unable to take it in emotionally. You are all over the place,” says Robert.
“And you are unable to grasp or take in the terminology used regarding your ailment and subsequent treatments. But having someone with you eliminates that.
"Take your doctor’s or specialist’s advice. Always follow their advice.”
Everybody has their own way of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Robert chose to talk to his family, keeping them in the loop about treatments, etc, so they wouldn’t worry unnecessarily.
“Choosing your circle of friends to talk to can help during tests, diagnosis, and treatments,” says Robert. “For me personally, the hardest thing was how I was going to tell my son, family, and close friends.”
Being a GAA fan, are his loyalties divided now between Cork and Galway?
“My loyalties will always be with Cork and the Rebel county when they play Galway. But in hurling, Galway will always be my number two team.”
Robert enjoyed his treks throughout July.
“As with all of my six year medical journey, the support, generosity and goodwill towards this fundraiser has surpassed our wildest dreams and for that we shall be forever grateful,” he says.
“Without that support, this fundraiser would have been futile.”
“Already an incredible €17,000 has been raised.
“I have been so lucky,” says Robert. “My cancer, though not curable at this time, it is manageable and I can now live a full and active life thanks to my medical team, the support of my son, family and friends.”
To donate go to www.idonate.ie/robbieswalk