WITH a mountain of homework every night and all the normal social activities and preoccupations of the average teenager, there was simply no room in this busy schedule for the word 'cancer'.
It was the first day of fifth year, back amongst her friends after the summer holidays, when Karen O'Neill (18) from Celbridge, Co Kildare, was diagnosed with Acute Myeliod Leukaemia in September 2008.
"I was such a healthy kid and when I was told I had cancer, I honestly thought it was a joke," she said.
"I remember all I said at the time was 'that's mad'."
After five months on St John's Ward of Crumlin Children's Hospital and a gruelling round of chemotherapy, Karen is now a healthy Leaving Cert student who credits a 10-day stay at Barretstown Children's Camp for giving her back her independence and joy for life.
Yesterday on International Childhood Cancer Day, she returned to Barretstown near Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare for a celebration attended by President Mary McAleese, Barretstown campers and their families.
With fairy lights strung from the trees, a little brightly painted boat bobbing at a jetty nearby and the run of a 12th century castle and its grounds, it was easy to see why Karen dubbed it "the Hogwarts of the real world".
Mrs McAleese commented that "childhood" and "cancer" were "two words that do not sit well together".
Parents of diagnosed children bore the strain of the ordeal "etched on their faces", she said, often feeling alone, depressed and fearful.
Turning to Karen, the President said that before she came here, it was probably hard to explain what Barretstown would do for a life, adding: "Here the emphasis is on living life to the full."
Maire and Ronan Jackman from Tullow, Co Carlow, told how their "world came crashing down" after their daughter Orla (13) was diagnosed with leukaemia. Still receiving treatment at Crumlin, Orla is now feeling "a million times better" and is in "maintenance" -- which Maire explained meant a slightly more relaxed schedule.
Orla was diagnosed a year ago after weeks of tummy aches which were put down to appendicitis. "Never in our wildest dreams did we think cancer.
"All our children had always been healthy," said Maire.
Professor Owen Smith, consultant paediatric haematologist at Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin, revealed that while three children in Ireland are diagnosed with cancer every week, survival rates are climbing ever higher -- and will have reached 90pc by the end of this decade.
And he quipped that one of his own small patients had met him in the carpark and greeted him with a kick on the ankles. In the crowd, the small jolly little boy of about three responsible for the incident laughed uproariously.