'When you're that young, you think you're unbreakable': Irish man's battle with cancer spanning two decades
Fran McDermott battled cancer in his 20s and again in his 30s. But his indomitable will triumphed over all the obstacles. He tells Joy Orpen that the cyclist Lance Armstrong had a big part to play in his recovery
'Son, you never quit." That quote, from the book by controversial American cyclist Lance Armstrong, did much to help one young Dubliner overcome some extremely challenging health issues.
Fran McDermott was in his second year at Dublin City University (DCU) studying accounting and finance, when he noticed a swelling in his left testicle. He had the GP check it out. "When I saw the look on his face, I knew it was serious," says Fran. "He referred me to A&E at Beaumont Hospital, where I had various blood tests and an ultrasound."
Some weeks later, he was advised to bring one of his parents with him, when he returned for the results. So he knew he was in trouble. The consultant confirmed that Fran was indeed suffering from testicular cancer. "I went numb," he remembers. "It was a terrible shock. When you're that young, you think you're unbreakable. When we left the consulting room I started crying. Dad put his arms around me and comforted me."
Their next hurdle was to break the news to Fran's mother at their Santry home. "I looked into her eyes and she knew immediately," says Fran. About a week later, Fran had the testicle surgically removed. When he woke up, he had a five-inch scar and was in a great deal of pain. Fran, who was just 20 at the time, says the older patients were immensely supportive. One gave him a copy of Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.
In the book, Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour de France, chronicles his heroic battles with testicular, lung and brain cancer. Fran got great comfort from the undoubted wisdom this champion cyclist shared with his readers. For example, when Armstrong's mother says to him, "Son, you never quit".
"That always reminded me what I was fighting for," says Fran.
Unfortunately, Fran's medical problems were not resolved by surgery. Shortly after, secondaries were spotted in his lungs. Doctors decided he needed aggressive chemotherapy to deal with this particular issue. And because his sperm could potentially be adversely affected by the treatment, he was advised to have some frozen for future use. He says, given the pain and trauma of his recent surgery, this was the last thing on his mind, but he went through with it anyway. "Even at that young age the fear that I might not be able to have kids did worry me," he says.
Early in 2001, Fran underwent his radical treatment. When the chemotherapy finally came to an end, he got another terrible blow. "Speckles" were still showing up in scans of his lungs, so open chest surgery was recommended. During this procedure, a number of small tumours, and some scar tissue, were removed. He woke from the surgery to find two tubes draining fluids, including blood, from his lungs and he was feeling very unwell.
Nonetheless, a couple of days later, he made his painful way from his bed to the door of his hospital room. "It felt like I had run a 100m sprint," he recalls. "I was gasping for air." And even though the worst seemed to be over, his blood marker levels (which may indicate a potential illness) failed to return to normal. So Fran had regular blood tests and scans for the next decade. Finally, in October 2012, he was discharged. But his euphoria that he could now "move on", didn't last long.
In the first week of 2013, Fran was shaving, when he noticed a swelling in his neck. With a sinking heart he returned to Beaumont, where his hopes were raised by suspicions that his condition might be viral. But when that proved false, he was referred to consultant surgeon Mr Peter Walshe. "When I told him my story, he was very sympathetic," says Fran. "I really felt I could trust him from the very beginning."
Given Fran's history, it was decided to remove all the lymph nodes in his neck. It was also discovered that the root cause of Fran's swelling was thyroid cancer. So more surgery was required. But following this operation, Fran didn't even need painkillers and he ascribes this fact to Mr Walshe's surgical skills.
Later, Fran had radioactive therapy. This involved swallowing a pill and then spending five days in almost total isolation. "That was really testing and seemed never-ending," says Fran. He explains that losing his thyroid has huge implications for him. "It manages your metabolism. It's basically the engine that controls things such as hormone levels and the like. So it's pretty life-changing."
Fran doesn't drink or smoke, he tries to eat well and he has regular check-ups. As a boy, he had been a keen footballer and snooker player, so it was almost inevitable that exercise would become part of his health cocktail.
"I was watching lads at DCU play soccer and they were that bad I started jogging around the pitch," he says, laughing at the memory. That seemed to get him going on his current path. At the time, Fran was enjoying a two-month career break, so he filled the gaps by reading uplifting books like The Chimp Paradox. This made him take a second look at what was possible for someone like him. He then realised that while cancer didn't define who he was, the strengths he'd employed in overcoming disease did. So he began training - big time. He had just two months to prepare for the Dublin Marathon.
"When I was at the start line I was very, very nervous," he says. "This was a great unknown." But ultimately Fran's enormous strength of character got him through the gruelling race. His parents and two sisters were there at the finishing line to celebrate his huge success. "I'd been holding myself back for years," he says. "But the day of that marathon was a big day; it was a victory over everything I'd been through."
Not long after Fran also took up cycling. Nowadays a 400-mile ride doesn't seem to faze him. "We've just done one as part of the Bewley's coffee morning fund-raiser," he offers enthusiastically.
"When I'm out running, or struggling uphill on a bike, I can picture times when I was in real agony, and that helps me to keep going. I want to apply that same fighting spirit to exercise and good health," says Fran.
With that the 35-year-old chartered accountant turns to the next item on his busy agenda: his marriage next May to Anne, the light of his life. "I'm very excited," he says and "yes, I'd really like a couple of kids."
For more information about the Beaumont Hospital Foundation, see bhf.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine