Thursday 8 December 2016

Brave Irish teen documents her cancer battle to show others 'it's not a death penalty'

Sarah (18) sets up Facebook page to give others hope

Published 21/04/2015 | 19:34

Sharon O'Neill who shaved her head with daughter Sarah (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)
Sharon O'Neill who shaved her head with daughter Sarah (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)
Sarah and her mum Sharon (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)
Cancer sufferer Sarah O'Neill (18) with her parents Sharon and Darren
Sarah has 'continued to inspire' says her proud mum (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)

A brave teenage cancer sufferer has decided to document her battle against the disease in a bid to show others it is not a death penalty.

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Sarah O’Neill, who had just finished fifth year when she was diagnosed with Lymphoma last summer, is recovering after undergoing major surgery to remove a tumour from her lung in Dublin’s Mater Hospital on Monday night.

The bubbly 18-year-old, and her parents Sharon and Darren, set up the Facebook page Smile For Sarah in the hope of helping at least one, if not a few, other people.

They want people to know the signs of the disease, as well as to give others hope that they can fight it.

“Through all of her treatment Sarah was never stopped smiling and being positive,” Mrs O’Neill said.

“She has continued to inspire and touch many people and hopes to share her story with people.

Sarah and her mum Sharon (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)
Sarah and her mum Sharon (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)

“To help people who are going through similar situations and to teach young people to appreciate what they have and not take anything for granted because it can be wiped away in such a short time.

“Your life can change in the blink of an eye and there's no going back, but Sarah continues to go on and persevere through the hard times.”

Despite missing a lot of her sixth year in the in Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, Sarah aims to sit her Leaving Certificate this summer.

Through her illness she has decided she wants to become a nurse, and has already been accepted on to a pre-nursing PLC this September which she hopes will get her a place on a nursing degree the following year.

Cancer sufferer Sarah O'Neill (18) with her parents Sharon and Darren (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)
Cancer sufferer Sarah O'Neill (18) with her parents Sharon and Darren (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)

Sarah, who lives just outside Drogheda, Co Louth, with her parents and brothers Sam and Luke, was fit and healthy and exercising three to four times a week. However,  she began to get a pain in her upper left chest and shoulder in February of last year.

Doctors initially believed it was a pulled muscle from exercising and lifting weights but the pain continued.

Then, one night in early June 2014, when she was enjoying summer with her friends, she was lying in bed when she began to catch her breath and could not lie down.

An x-ray in Drogheda hospital showed 'something' on her left lung which they initially believed was fluid, but further tests and scans quickly showed a tumour or 'lump'' in Sarah's chest.

“Sarah was transferred to the Mater hospital the next day,” Mrs O’Neill told Independent.ie.

“Sarah was diagnosed with Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. It was later confirmed to be Large B cell Lymphoma. Sarah was moved up to the oncology ward the next day. She underwent a bone marrow biopsy which is said to be the sorest thing in the world without a flinch.”

That evening, on June 25, she started chemotherapy and the next morning Sarah - and her mother - both shaved their heads.

“I never even questioned doing it,” her mother said.

Over the next six months Sarah was admitted to hospital every 21 days for a four day chemotherapy treatment, but she never stopped smiling.

Sarah has 'continued to inspire' says her proud mum (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)
Sarah has 'continued to inspire' says her proud mum (Credit: Facebook Smile for Sarah)

“She was always positive and never let anything bring her down or anything hold her back,” Mrs O’Neill continued.

“She went out bald and stood with a smile on her face regardless of how many people looked at her or what people said.

“Sarah couldn't go back to school in September because when she wasn't in hospital getting chemo she was in twice a week getting bloods or getting her PICC line changed.”

While tests in December showed the cancer had not cleared, a second CT guided biopsy in early January confirmed that the biopsy results came back clear and they would not need to go ahead with the bone marrow transplant or further chemo," Mrs O’Neill said.

“Sarah celebrated her 18th birthday that Friday and had an amazing night with all her family and friends and was scared but excited to get back to her normal life,” her mother continued.

“Sarah went back to school and decided to go ahead with preparing for her leaving cert in June.”

She also completed her driving theory test and her 12 driving lessons – and is eagerly awaiting her first car.

Sarah went back to hospital for a scan in March to ensure the scar tissue/infection was decreasing, however a few days later the hospital rang with the results - the cancer was visible on scans.

Sarah went back into hospital to meet her consultant and was told she needed surgery or radiation.

“Because of where Sarah's rumour is located radiation would come with a long list of possible consequences and risks,” Mrs O’Neill continued.

“The consultant said they would talk to a heart and lung surgeon to see if he feels he would be able to perform surgery to remove what's left of her tumour and test it, before any more treatment was done.”

Sarah went on a much longed for holiday to Portugal with her dad earlier this month before returning to undergo a gruelling four and a half hour operation to remove the tumour – which was carried out last night.

She will remain in hospital for up to 10 days and has to wait for further tests to see if the tumour was removed in full and if she will need radiation or a bone morrow transplant.

The family said they decided to set up the page after well wishers asked about Sarah’s progress over the last 10 months.

Mrs O’Neill said while she has found the months hard, her daughter’s positivity has kept her going.

“People ask how I cope and how I’m so strong, but I’ve no choice,” she added.

“Sarah is doing this (the Facebook page) because she wants people to know the word cancer is not a death penalty.

“It’s a long road, but it’s a doable road.”

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