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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

'I was told I had cancer and would never walk again - I'm doing a 5k this week'

“I knew if I continued I could get this broken body to move again.”

RUNNING A 5K is a goal for many people, including Ciarán Pollard.

He took part in the Run in the Dark in 2011 and 2014. The annual event is the main fundraiser for the Mark Pollock Trust, an organisation aiming to cure paralysis in our lifetime.

“It seemed like a fun thing to join up to, you just want to get out and get involved, you don’t always consider the reasons [behind an event],” Ciarán recalls.

He’ll be taking part in the event again this week. To say his path there has been difficult would be quite the understatement.

In January 2017 he was told he probably had about 18 months to live and would likely never walk again.

First Wedding On Crutches Out Of Wheelchair Ciarán and his partner Jemma. Source: Ciarán Pollard

Ciarán was previously very active – running, playing football, cycling – before “life took a sudden turn in October 2016″.

He had returned from a trip to Chicago when he started to have back pain. An initial twinge became worse and he went to a physiotherapist, who recommended he go for an MRI scan.

“Sure enough, it came back showing a tumour, it was about 5cm,” Ciarán tells

The type of tumour was extremely rare, growing within his spinal cord.

Surgery was high risk and only to be done if necessary. As his symptoms worsened, the decision was made to undergo an explorative biopsy and for tumour removal if possible.

‘All the feeling was gone’ 

When Ciarán woke up from the surgery he was told he was paralysed from the waist down. Additionally, the surgery had confirmed that his tumour was an unremovable high-grade anaplastic astrocytoma. It can be treated but there is no cure. 

All the feeling from the waist down was gone, it was quite a sad situation to be in. I was also told the tumour was malignant and that people in my situation usually have about 12-18 months to live.

“It was not the greatest situation to be in. I was confined to a bed. Your pride, any sort of pride, everything is just dashed. It’s a horrible moment for anyone to experience,” Ciarán recalls.

Over the next few months underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Ciarán says this period in hospital was particularly difficult as “when you’re just lying there, your mind goes to very dark places”.

Ciarán Physio at National Rehabiliation Hospital Ciarán doing physio at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Source: Ciarán Pollard

Luckily, he had a “wonderful support network” – his partner Jemma as well as friends and family members “got to work and set up a timetable”.

“They kept me clean, kept me nourished, kept me company.”

Ciarán says he didn’t realise it at the time but by moving and rubbing his limbs, his friends were helping his recovery.

They moved my limbs. Little did I know, that’s what you have to do – try to rewire the brain. You have to start that straightaway, get your friends to start rubbing your legs and your feet.

“You’d go to a spa and pay for this. I don’t like people touching feet at the best of times, but I couldn’t feel it at this stage,” he jokes.

“They were moving my legs, keeping my joints limber. All of that sparked the movement about two months after the operation.”

‘Staring at my feet’ 

One day a few of Ciarán’s friends had come to the hospital to watch a rugby match with him.

“It was neck and neck, towards the end of the match my senses were so heightened I started looking at feet and tried to imagine them moving again … Whether it was the excitement of the game or the work I had done in hospital prior to that, I saw this tiny little movement, this little flicker of a toe moving.”

Wanting to make sure he wasn’t seeing things, Ciarán asked his friends if they could see it too. “My friends were all standing in a circle, staring at my feet.” They could indeed see movement.

That was a spark of hope. Despite the cancer, I knew if I continued I could get this broken body to move again, I could get more and more back.

In May 2017 Ciarán entered the National Rehabilitation Hospital where he underwent intensive physiotherapy and rehabilitation. Within about a week, he was able to stand up. Eventually he was able to walk 1km in just under an hour.

“I was told I had 18 months of life left and was never going to walk again … The people in the NRH are just amazing, essentially my circuit board had been tampered with and they got me going again.”

Ciarán Physio at National Rehabilitation Hospital(2) Ciarán doing physio at the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

In August 2017 he underwent another MRI. Ciarán says this process normally lasts 20-30 minutes but on this occasion took about an hour and a half.

I didn’t know what was going on, it was scary. The reason they repeated the scan so many times is because they were finding it really difficult to locate where the tumour was, the chemo and radiotherapy had shrunk it, it was really hard to see.

Ciarán says he, Jemma and some family and friends went to the pub that night and “celebrated as if we’d won the Lotto”.

He is not currently receiving treatment for the tumour and is trying to remain positive about an upcoming scan in December. “There is no cure, treatment is to slow it down, I don’t know where we’re at with that,” he says, adding that struggling to locate it at the last scan was “good news”.

“It is what it is, you just have to hope and pray that it has either stopped or slowed in growth.” Ciarán says training for the Run in the Dark has been “really helpful” as it “allows you to stay focused on the now”.

As well as preparing for the race, Ciarán has returned to work at the University of Notre Dame’s Dublin base, where he is a programme manager. He’s aware many people with spinal injuries are unable to ever return to work and says he is very grateful. 

Cane and able

Ciarán “associates with a very active crew” – something that spurred on his desire to take part in the race.

“I’d see them all the time doing triathlons and marathons. I missed that world, I wanted to get back into that.”

stoke Ciaran at the Stoke Mandeville Inter-Unit Spinal Injury Games. Source: Ciarán Pollard

Earlier this year he and other patients from the NRH travelled to England to take part in a sporting event arranged by Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He tried archery, tennis and basketball, and knew he wanted to play more sport when he returned to Ireland.

This summer he decided to make the Run in the Dark his goal. He can now walk 1km in just over 16 minutes and hopes to complete the 5k route in about an hour and a half. He’ll be taking part in the event with his partner Gemma as part of a team called Cane and Able (yes, the pun is intentional).

He says Jemma has played a massive role in getting him to where he is today.

I wouldn’t be where I am without her. She was self-employed, she put down all tools when this happened and was with me at every single moment. She’s not a registered carer, but she should be. She’s just been brilliant, she really has.

“She’s only 34, this is not something she signed up for but she’s taken it in her stride. She has excelled at every single moment. She is wonderful.”

Ciarán says it has taken “a lot of hard work” to get to this stage but also “a massive luck element”.

“So many people leave the NRH with the same amount of limited function they had when they came into it. I have friends working as hard as I am and not getting there, I’m one of the lucky ones … all spinal injuries are different.”

Ciarán says the “amazing” NRH medical team who have helped him to walk again are “as involved as I was in getting me to where I am”, adding: “I don’t know how you repay someone for doing that, it’s priceless.”

You can read about the Run in the Dark as well as the work of the Mark Pollock Trust here. Information about the services offered by Spinal Injuries Ireland can be read here.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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