Aaron McMahon: I got the best present ever — the operation

Midleton teenager Aaron McMahon inspired the nation with his spirit in the face of a serious cancer illness. Following major surgery in the US, Aaron talks to Chris Dunne about his recovery and hopes for the future.
Aaron McMahon: I got the best present ever — the operation
Aaron McMahon preparing for Christmas with his mum Gail, at their home in Shanagarry. Picture: David Keane.

WHEN Dr Paul Gardner told Aaron McMahon that he can “look forward to life as usual” after successfully removing the entire rare cancerous tumour, (chordoma), from Aaron’s head in a six-hour operation, it seems Aaron took his words on board.

“We were told here that we were facing palliative care for Aaron,” says mum Gail.

The family sought help Stateside from the man who had carried out hundreds of similar surgeries.

Aaron, like many 18 year olds, is swotting for end-of-term exams.

“I’ve some homework to do,” says Aaron, who is sitting at the kitchen table with his schoolbooks at his home in Shanagarry, east Cork. “I hope to do seven subjects for my Leaving Cert next year, so I have to practise taking it all in and practise getting my memory to work again.”

The donation buckets filled by thousands of people — family, friends, neighbours, Cork folks, Cork companies, and by those further afield — to send Aaron to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre for a life-saving operation, are no longer strewn across the kitchen floor or the hall inside the front door.

“I’m attending two or three classes again at CBS,” says Aaron.

“My aim is to get back to school full time. It’s one of the things I really want to do. I really miss it and the lads. I missed two years of school when they found the cancer in 2017. I know that I have the cancer forever. For now it’s contained. I hope to get five or ten years without it coming back. 2019 is a new start for me.”

Aaron is making a list and checking it twice.

“I want to get back playing sport too. I don’t know if that will actually happen.”

Future plans for 2019 include going to see Liverpool play at Anfield.

“I’m a loyal Liverpool fan,” he says.

Even though Dr Gardner says Aaron is doing well, with no new neurological problems he always has to watch for a recurrence.

With a complete removal and radiation, Aaron’s prognosis is good. “The team are very pleased with me,” says Aaron. “I’ve had a fair shock to the system.”

What did Dr Gardner say when he came out of the operating theatre on July 18 to brief his parents?

“He said, ‘Guys we got it. We got it all,’” says Aaron. “He was grinning from ear to ear.”

Gail and Paul were ecstatic. “My mum and dad said it was like winning the Lotto!”

What was Aaron’s reaction at getting a second chance to live his life into adulthood?

“I gave mum and dad a big grin too,” says Aaron. “Even though I was in so much pain. But I knew. My head felt very heavy after the operation, but I stood up not long after.”

Aaron will be returning to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre soon for a catch-up with his team.

“I have to go back to Pittsburgh for a follow-up in a few weeks,” he says.

“It’s great we have an app on our phones which give us the results of my blood tests and the scan results from the hospital immediately.

“There is no waiting. It’s a great system. I attend an ENT doctor in Whitfield Clinic, Waterford. A crust can build up in my nose which can cause choking,” says Aaron.

“So, we have to watch that and I must get scans every three months.”

Aaron is quite at home in Pittsburgh.

“I’d move there in a heartbeat,” he says.

Did he visit the Heinz Field NFL stadium?

“It’s massive.” says Aaron. “Pittsburgh is a fabulous city, easy to get around. I can’t wait to see it all lit up for Christmas and to meet my friends again at the hospital.

“My 18th birthday was two days after the operation, July 20. I was fully awake and I knew it was my birthday. The nurses celebrated with me. They had a birthday cake for me and balloons. It’s still in my mind.

“But I just want to be home here for Christmas. Nuala Nan is coming over. I’m thinking about what to get her for Christmas, even though I’m not a shopper.”

Does Aaron still get the brutal headaches that marred his teenage years? “Sometimes,” he says.

“But they are not as bad as they used to be. If I overdo it then I know all about it. I used to be on a dosage of between 10 and 20 tablets. Now I take only half that amount.

“After the first operation in 2017, in Beaumont, Dublin, when 80% of the tumour was removed, I couldn’t do anything. I felt wrecked after that. My eyes were the biggest problem. My eyelid was damaged in the first operation. Now, by degrees, I can do more things each day. I try and practise keeping my eyelid open every day and I do eye exercises.”

He had a bit of drama after the successful removal of the tumour hadn’t he?“Yes, I had,” says Aaron.


“The surgeon went in through the top of my nose to get the tumour. I blew all the packing out of my nose after the operation when I sneezed. Seemingly I was the first ever patient to do that! The ENT doctor, Professor Snyderman, was alarmed. The pain was horrific. I had to go to the ICU unit for a few days where I rallied. But it’s an experience I won’t forget.”

McMahons are selling up.

People’s generosity is still in their minds. “We haven’t got the final bill yet from Pittsburgh,” says dad Paul.

“Because Aaron was in ICU, we know there is a fair debt there. We don’t know how we’ll end up financially. But look, it’s only money.

“This Christmas, our family could be visiting a grave. Because of the massive generosity from everybody in Cork and beyond, that didn’t happen. We knew there’d be good days, bad days and tough days.

“The country’s phenomenal fund-raising efforts gave us that mighty lift that we needed. We vowed, no matter what, we’d stick together.

“Our story could have ended in another way. That didn’t happen.”

Aaron wants something else to happen.

“I’d love to have a day especially for the Chordoma Foundation, and for people who are going through that cancer,” says Aaron.

“Our night-time kayaking event to raise funds to help send me to Pittsburgh was a huge success. I’d love to do something like that next summer and get everyone to wear blue, or dye their hair blue in aid of the foundation. I think that would be cool. I’m going to plan that.”


His mother is planning an event too.

“I told Aaron I was going to light up the house this year more than ever before,” says Gail.

““And I’m not waiting until December 8. I’m going at it very soon.

We, more than any other family, have something really special to celebrate this year. Everyone will see our Christmas lights twinkling merrily from the road.”

Aaron is entering into the spirit of Christmas too.

“I love all the decorations and the Christmas lights,” he says.

The goodwill from near and far made Aaron’s spirits soar.

“The outpouring of uplifting messages that came from near and far was amazing,” he says. “Messages and donations came from people outside Midleton, and nationwide. I didn’t expect that. The good in people is fantastic.”

Aaron has had a golden opportunity to get his life back.

“I have a new lease of life,” he says.

“Being here at home with my mum and dad, having fun with my brothers, and being with my loved ones; that’s all I want.”

Doesn’t he want any presents for Christmas?

“I got the best present ever,” says Aaron. “I got the operation.”

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