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Opinion: 'My name is Niall, I'm 32, and I have cancer. I never imagined saying those words'

Niall, from Athlone, writes about how he used to think that palliative care was for “the old, the very sick and the dying”, but it’s helping him.

Niall Keaney

MY NAME IS Niall, I’m 32, and I have cancer.

Prior to May 2017, I would never have imagined myself saying those words. I swam, I cycled, I ran. I even managed to put them all together and do the odd triathlon.

To celebrate turning 30 in April ’17, I ‘ran’ the Paris marathon. I won’t say how long it took, but I finished it.

Getting diagnosed

In hindsight, the symptoms were there – night sweats, weight loss. Yet at the time they were easy to ignore. It’s the everyday things we spend our time worrying about – money, work. Our health is never really a priority, until one day, it becomes our only priority.

That seismic shift came one evening at the end of April. Something as simple as some pressure in my neck and face would change my life forever. A reluctant visit to my GP on the morning of 2 May, ended with a moment I’ll never forget.

The source of the pressure was a 15cm tumour in my chest. From there, things moved fast – scans, biopsy, the works. In the end, they had a name for it, Thymoma. Cancer of the Thymus. A small gland in our chest that’s remains active until puberty.

In 99% of cases, it becomes redundant. For 1.5 in a million, it becomes cancerous. In my case, the tumour had spread to my right lung, diaphragm, lymph-nodes and had begun to cut off blood flow and envelope my heart.

Treatment

Come June I had started chemotherapy. Three days, every three weeks. Despite this, by the end of the third cycle, scans showed things had continued to progress. It was time to consider an alternative route.

The surgical team had a radical proposal, but with no guarantees. The only thing they could guarantee was if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be around much longer. What stood in my favour were my fitness and my age.

The morning of 7 September, I made my peace and said my goodbyes. My girlfriend Rachel of only nine months and my family were the last faces I would see. Almost 10 hours of surgery would see me lose my right lung; a section of my pericardium would be replaced and a new prosthetic vessel would bring blood to my heart.

The first person I remember seeing when I came to was Rachel, my rock. For some reason she continued to stick around. I was definitely not ready for what was to come.

Not alone the physical challenge, but the mental one. Surgery was shortly followed by 25 sessions of radiation as a precaution, but by April 2018 I had received the all clear. What I needed then, more than anything, was a sense of purpose.

Michael Ganly, my employer prior to getting sick, was a support throughout. He knew the importance of having a routine and an ‘identity’, and he supported my return to work in every way that July.

Life goes on

RichieandmyselfParis2017 With my friend Richie in Paris in 2017.

Unfortunately, normality didn’t last too long. The results of a scan that October showed the cancer had returned. Within the week I was back in treatment. Ten sessions of radiation, and six cycles of chemo.

Myself and Rachel couldn’t sit back and watch the world go by, life goes on. A trip to Budapest for the Christmas markets, Bruges the following March with friends. Before I knew it, I had finished another round of treatment just in time to turn 32.

Another scan, and more good news, the cancer had continued to spread, intermingled with the words ‘incurable’, ‘control’ and ‘manage’. Cue a trip to Lisbon.

When I returned I started with Rory Wilkinson, an advanced nurse practitioner in palliative care at St James’ Hospital. Up until then I had associated palliative care with the old, the very sick and the dying. What I learned with Rory was that it’s so much more.

I had started another round of chemo and symptoms were starting to hamper me. Rory was able to direct and prescribe me ways of managing those symptoms, without the unwanted side effects.

Even more, he was there to listen. Talking is so important. I cannot stress that enough. What I realised then, the difference between life and death, is those around you. The support I’ve received has been nothing short of amazing. Rachel and I have built our relationship on honesty, about the now and what the future holds. Communication is key, whether that’s with your partner, family, friends or practitioners.

You never think it’s going to land at your door and yet every family has their story. This is just mine.

Palliative Care Week is this week, running until 14 September. The aim of the week is to raise awareness of the difference palliative care can make to people’s lives. 

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Niall Keaney

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