Cork dad's death has left an unfillable void

Cork mum of two, CLIONA MURPHY who lost her husband to skin cancer, aged just 37 shares her story and stresses the importance of protecting ourselves and families from the sun
Cork dad's death has left an unfillable void
Cliona Murphy, from Passage West, Co. Cork.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

BRENDAN and I met 19 years ago. Like most Irish romances ours started in the local pub. I’d had my eye on Brendan for ages! Then one night, a week after my 21 st birthday, I was told by a ‘reliable source’ that Brendan would be in our local pub, so I made my way down determined to make him mine, and that I did. For years we argued over who made the first move. I maintained it was him and him me. A few nights before he died, I settled the argument and confessed all…It was me who made the first move and it was the best move I ever made.

In 2010 we had our first girl, Niamh. We married in 2013 and had Fiadh our second girl in 2015. A house full of girls, Brendan was in his element. We were a young family with our lives ahead of us, the world was our oyster. However, that was set to change.

On New Year’s Day in 2016 Brendan began to feel unwell. It started with heartburn but progressively got worse. Brendan worked in Dublin mid-week. One morning he rang me to say he had felt so unwell during the night that he thought he would have to call an ambulance. At this stage I began to worry as this wasn’t like Brendan, so we arranged an appointment with his GP for when he was back in Cork. His GP diagnosed an ulcer and prescribed various medications.

Nothing worked and over the next couple of weeks Brendan got worse. He was vomiting daily and had started to lose quite a lot of weight. Finally, on Sun 21 st of Feb (three days after I returned to work from Maternity leave) we went to South Doc and insisted that something be done. The GP that night took one look at him and immediately had him admitted to hospital and by 3pm the following day we were told that he had four tumours, one on his lungs, liver, kidney and pancreas. The tumour on his kidney was 13cm in size.

It took weeks for an official diagnosis to come through. It was Melanoma. Stage 4 Melanoma. We couldn’t believe it Skin Cancer; Brendan had no moles. So how could he have skin cancer? But this was good news. I remember at the time his wonderful oncologist telling us that he did a little dance around the office when the diagnosis came through as it meant there were treatment options available to him and a lot of work was being done in the area of Melanoma.

We got even better news a couple of days later when they confirmed that Brendan’s Melanoma was B-Raf positive which meant he could start a target therapy which targeted this mutation. It was like a miracle, within 24 hours he started to feel better, he started eating again and was discharged 2 days later.

For 6 months our lives went back to normal, Brendan was able to continue to work, play soccer and we even went on a two-week holiday to Spain with family. Then in September we learnt that the treatment had stopped working. Despite this we were still quite optimistic as he was offered a place on a trial, but unfortunately Brendan got really sick, really quickly. His tumours doubled in size again in a matter of weeks, so he needed something fast acting. He underwent a couple of sessions of chemotherapy which meant that he was no longer able to partake in the clinical trial.

But we had other options, an immunotherapy that had good response rates for Melanoma was now licenced in Ireland, and despite some initial access issues that we eventually overcame, Brendan started this treatment in November.

In Christmas 2016, Brendan was admitted to hospital for tests as he began to feel unwell again, but to our surprise the results were good, the immunotherapy was working. We were so happy; we had been given another opportunity. He also underwent radiation, on Christmas week, which was supposed to give the immunotherapy a boost, which hopefully would reduce his tumours even further. We had a fantastic Christmas that year, conscious the whole time that perhaps it could be our last as a family. And it was.

On Valentine’s Day we learned that the immunotherapy had stopped working. However, we were still optimistic as there were still options available to us. He underwent more chemotherapy but unfortunately this didn’t work so it was decided that he would re trial his original targeted therapy as there was some evidence to suggest that this may be effective albeit for a very short tim e at best.

In May we went to Parknasilla for our 3 rd anniversary. As we were leaving, I knew Brendan wasn’t well, but he was determined to go. As we arrived, I took Brendan’s temperature in the car park, it was after spiking. I wanted to go home but Brendan wouldn’t have it. His exact words were ‘if we have to go home now Clíona this will kill me’ So we stayed. We rang his oncologist who faxed a prescription to the hotel. We drove to Sneem where a lovely pharmacist opened on a Sunday evening just to get us the medication. We stayed for two nights; Brendan was very ill but looking back now I think he knew we wouldn’t celebrate our anniversary again.

A couple of weeks later we met with his oncologist to discuss his latest scan results. As soon as we walked in the office, I knew the results were going to be bad. They were. His tumours had significantly increased in size and were after spreading further. We had to cancel our holiday as he was being admitted to hospital for a blood transfusion and was going to start a new treatment, a combination of two immunotherapies. Unfortunately, his Melanoma, this time was far too aggressive, and he died in Marymount Hospice just two weeks after his first infusion. He died the day before Fiadh’s second birthday. He was only 37.

Cliona Murphy with her daughters, Fiadh and Niamh Crowne.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Cliona Murphy with her daughters, Fiadh and Niamh Crowne.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

On July the 10 th, it will be Brendan’s 3 rd anniversary. It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since I last spoke to him, since the girls got to hug him. It’s hard to believe that both my girls have celebrated another two birthdays, two Christmas’s without their dad.

Brendan died from a cancer that is by in large preventable. Brendan’s death has left an unfillable void in all our lives. He will never celebrate another birthday with Niamh and Fiadh, he’ll miss Fiadh’s first day in school in September and he won’t get to walk either of our girls up the aisle. It’s hard to believe that a few simple steps such as the Sun Smart Code can significantly reduce one’s risk of developing Melanoma later in life. To anyone reading this, please think twice about going outside from April to September without taking the necessary measures to protect yourselves and your children. Trust me you don’t want to go through what we have especially when it can be avoided.

When I look back, I feel we were lucky in some respects, we had a fantastic team looking after him. We were also lucky that Brendan was diagnosed when he was. So much had been done in the world of Melanoma. I remember reading his medical notes a couple of months after his diagnosis, before we received the official Melanoma diagnoses, it was expected that Brendan would only live for three months. He lived for 15 months and this was all thanks to the new treatments. But it’s not enough, like Brendan there are so many people still dying from this horrible disease and that’s why it’s so important that research continues so we can find better and more effective ways of treating Melanoma.

Campaign aims to educate people on being SunSmart 

BETTER UV protection and new treatments are the only way to achieve 100% survival for all skin cancers, so says Breakthrough Cancer Research.

They have launched a new campaign called ‘Let’s get to 100% together’.

The campaign comes also as they announce a new skin cancer treatment could be available by November.

As part of the new campaign, the cancer research charity is urging SunSmart behaviour and better UV awareness.

Anna Geary and David Gillick have come on board to highlight that particular care is needed for outdoorsy and sporty people.

A recent survey by Breakthrough Cancer Research has found a lack of sun care and UV awareness - 73% of Irish adults patch burn regularly. While 2% do not know the UV index at which they should wear sunscreen.

Meanwhile only 45% of people have sought medical advice for an area of skin they are worried about.

The new national awareness campaign warns about the importance of protecting skin from UV damage 100% of the time.

In Ireland the number of skin cancer cases have doubled in the last decade and continue to rise. We have the highest mortality rate from melanoma in Europe.

Breakthrough is calling on people to increase their UV awareness and be vigilant when applying sunscreen, to ensure they achieve 100% coverage. Using UV technology, the charity is highlighting the hard to reach and often missed areas that result in patch burning, such as the back of the neck, ‘widows peak’, tip of the nose, ears and the lower legs.

They have also stressed that sunscreen should be the last line of defence against skin cancer, as SunSmart behaviour starts with staying in the shade, covering up, and wearing sunglasses and hats.

In addition to raising awareness about the need for 100% protection against UV, Breakthrough continues to fund pioneering research for innovative new treatments that help to improve the survival outcomes for those who have already been diagnosed.

The charity gave the green light to an exciting new skin cancer research project just this month. The novel chemo-free non surgical treatment for skin cancers uses calcium instead of chemotherapy and could be available for patients in a clinical trial, initially in Cork, as early as November. The hope is that this non-toxic but highly effective treatment can be delivered to outpatients. However, the charity needs to raise €100k to continue to fund this new life-saving research, and are calling on donations from the public to help more people to survive sooner. You can donate directly at breakthroughcancerresearch.ie.

Commenting on the campaign and new research, Orla Dolan, CEO of Breakthrough Cancer Research, said: “We’re calling on the public to do everything they can to protect themselves properly, while we work on new treatments.

“Our survey had some very worrying results about understanding around prevention and a lack of awareness about UV in Ireland.

“Many were unaware that UV radiation, which is omitted naturally from the sun and is the main risk factor for skin cancers, is not related to heat and can even penetrate through cloud”, Orla continued.

“Sunscreen should be your last line of defence – it’s important to stay out of the sun and cover up when outdoors particularly between 11-3 every day from April to September when the UV index is over 3.

“We have put some helpful tips on our website to help people become more SunSmart and UV aware. Most of us know to use sunscreen to stay safe but it’s important not be careless.”

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