‘I asked about egg freezing when I was diagnosed with cancer at 17 – there is nothing I want more than to be a mum’
Almost 44,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year in Ireland, and with an estimated one in two of us getting the disease at some point in our lifetime, it is safe to say that cancer affects all of us, either directly or indirectly.
ut despite its prevalence, a cancer diagnosis isn’t the death sentence it was once perceived to be. Due to ongoing research and new treatments, outcomes are improving and the likelihood of surviving many forms of cancer has increased.
However, in order to continue to improve cancer treatments, funding is essential. Every year, the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) hopes its annual fundraising event, Daffodil Day, will help raise vital funds for cancer research and awareness of the need for early detection.
On March 24, the ICS also wants their most important fundraiser to be a “reminder of the urgency to catch up on the detection of thousands of cancers which remain undiagnosed since the start of the pandemic”.
It is estimated that 2,600 cancer diagnoses were missed in 2020 alone due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and catch-up remains difficult due to demands on the health service. So the ICS is hoping to raise €4m to support their services and life-changing research, and also to fund its vital free services.
“At the Irish Cancer Society, we want to support every single person in Ireland affected by cancer,” says Averil Power, Chief Executive. “Over recent years, and because of the public’s generosity, we have significantly increased investment in our services, in counselling and in cancer trials. We have also launched a free health check roadshow, Your Health Matters, which has visited communities across the country. But there is so much more that we need to do. We’re asking the public to rally around us to help us make this the biggest Daffodil Day ever, to ensure nobody in Ireland faces cancer alone.”
Naomi Brosnan knows the reality of facing a cancer diagnosis as she was diagnosed at just 17 years of age after finding a lump in her breast. She immediately rang her GP and was referred to the Breast Clinic, but told not to worry as it was most likely to be a cyst. However, while waiting for her appointment, she found more lumps, in both breasts.
Her doctor was a little bit more concerned and called the hospital to see if her breast check appointment could be brought forward. This was arranged for five weeks, but in the meantime, things went from bad to worse.
“By the time the five weeks were up, I had lumps on either side of my jawline, underneath my armpits, in both breasts and in my groin, along with night sweats and fatigue — and I had no appetite and was puking up green bile,” she says.
“So I was really sick, especially in the few days just before my appointment. Me and my dad drove to the hospital and when we arrived he had to get me a wheelchair because I was too weak to walk. Once we were in the clinic, I was put in a private room so I could lie down and then they did a blood test and took a biopsy from one of the lumps.
“Within half an hour, the results came back to say I had stage 4 Burkitt lymphoma, which is very rare and fast growing. I like to think of myself as a good ‘Google doctor’ and because of the lumps and symptoms, I just knew that it was cancer and had told friends that I thought I had it.
“So my dad and I were in the room and while I was drifting in and out of sleep, he got called out by the doctor and minutes later I could hear him crying and I knew I was right — it was cancer.
“They came and told me the results but I wasn’t shocked or upset at the time, because for weeks I had been telling myself that I had it, so in a way I had already started processing it. I just zoned out and when they said I was going to the ward, I just said, ‘OK, let’s go’ and told my dad that I would be fine.”
The 25-year-old was admitted and allowed to settle into the room which would become home for the next five months, before the long, hard treatment journey began.
“I received chemotherapy and had lumbar punctures, which was when chemo was injected into my spine because the cancer had also spread to the fluid around my brain,” she says. “Luckily, I’ve always thought that things could always be worse.
“I try to find the silver lining in every bad situation, but there were obviously some hard days — one of the hardest being the day most of my hair fell out. Also the day I lost the ability to walk (due to the cancer) and it took me a good few months to learn to walk again. But I had no choice other than to get on with it, because it was out of my control.
“I got through it all because of my family, friends and the nurses on that ward. It sounds crazy but we had so much fun together during such a dark and scary time. I was young and bold so there were constant pranks and laughter going on. Everyone was so good, because for the five months I was an in-patient, I had someone stay with me almost every night so I was never bored or lonely.
“We were told that no under-18s could stay with me but my friends pretended that they were all 18 and in college (so they could stay). Sometimes they forgot what course they had said they were studying, so the doctors and nurses knew that they weren’t students — but they just left us at it, probably because they saw how much I needed them.”
Because the Kerry woman, who has three siblings, was so young when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was possible that her future fertility might have been affected by treatment. But thankfully, she spoke to her doctor about her concerns and after looking into ways in which she could future-proof her chances of conceiving, she finally received support from the Childhood Cancer Fertility project, which she says has been invaluable.
“I am forever grateful to the Childhood Cancer Fertility project as through this, I was able to begin my egg freezing process at the Merrion Fertility Clinic in Dublin for free, as it is funded by the Irish Cancer Society,” she says. “There is nothing I want more in life than to have my own kids, so when they told me I needed chemo, I asked about freezing my eggs. However, because of how severe my cancer was, I didn’t have the time to do it because we couldn’t delay treatment. I started intensive chemo the day after my diagnosis.
“I knew it could cause infertility so once I was in remission, I got myself checked and to my relief I was still fertile. But I was advised to have my eggs frozen because after all the treatment, I was at risk of going into early menopause. I tried to get this funded by the government, because those diagnosed with cancer in Ireland are offered free fertility preservation before starting treatment — but unfortunately, because I had already had my chemo, I no longer qualified.
“I was absolutely heartbroken because I knew I would need to get a loan to pay for egg freezing. So my dad contacted our local politician and he got in touch with the Minister for Health on my behalf. A few weeks later, I got a letter telling me that I could be eligible for the Childhood Cancer Fertility project and to contact the Irish Cancer Society. I was bawling crying when I found out that I was eligible — there are actually no words to explain how grateful I am.”
Naomi has been affected both mentally and physically by her ordeal, but thanks to early detection and subsequent treatment, she is eight years in remission and is planning to move to Australia with her boyfriend this year.
“Cancer has been a pain in so many ways, including the fact that I’ve been left with an immune deficiency disorder, so I have to inject medicine into my stomach every month to keep me from getting sick,” she says. “But it has also taught me to be so grateful for everything I have and to just appreciate the small things in life, as sometimes these things get overlooked and it’s easy to forget how lucky we are.
“My advice to someone else who has just been diagnosed would be not to underestimate themselves and to take time to process things, but not to hold on to any negativity. Celebrate the small wins and try to find little positives every day. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason but I do believe we learn a lesson when going through hard times and come out stronger.
“I’ll be doing a 100,000 steps in a day challenge on April 21 to help raise money for the ICS. Cancer is both physically and mentally tough, so I wanted to do something which would challenge me in the same ways. It’s not going to be easy, but I want to prove to myself that I can do it and give back to an organisation which has done so much for me.”
To donate to Naomi’s challenge visit justgiving.com/page/walkwithnaomi. For more information about Daffodil Day or to find out how to donate or volunteer visit cancer.ie/daffodilday