Thursday 23 May 2019

'I was shocked to get cancer at 17, I thought chest pains were from gym'

Sarah O’Neill (21) is now studying at DCU, four years after her cancer diagnosis. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Sarah O’Neill (21) is now studying at DCU, four years after her cancer diagnosis. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Sarah O’Neill with her mum Sharon during her treatment

Elaine Keogh

A young woman who thought uncomfortable chest pains were due to overworking in the gym was shocked to be told by doctors that she had cancer.

Sarah O'Neill (21) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma just before her Leaving Cert year.

Sarah had been told her chest pain was due to a pulled muscle or something similar because, "I was quite active before I got sick. I would go to the gym three to four times a week".

The pain was intermittent until one night in June when she could barely breathe.

Her mother Sharon brought her to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, where an X-ray was taken and, "I was transferred to the Mater Hospital the next day and underwent a number of different tests there."

She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and started chemotherapy the next day.

"I was 17 when I was diagnosed, it was in the June just before I went into sixth year [in school]," she said.

"I was completely shocked, I hadn't even properly realised that people so young could get cancer."

Sarah, who received huge support from parents Sharon and Darren and brothers Sam (18) and Luke (10), had six months of chemotherapy.

But there were still signs of lymphoma on scans so she went on to have open-chest surgery to have the rest of the tumour removed, followed by four weeks of radiotherapy.

Sarah was attending Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan, north Co Dublin, and although advised to take a year out, she insisted on sitting her Leaving Cert as planned.

"I had my surgery in April 2015 and did my Leaving Certificate in June," she said. "My scans have been clear for over two years now."

Sarah says that she is now physically healthier than she has ever been and is back in the gym.

"I am really conscious of my health and how I look after myself and my body.

"I think there's a lot cancer 'survivors' go through after treatment that isn't really highlighted," she said.

"It's hard but you learn to live with your new 'normal'.

"Everyday it gets a little bit easier and I'm really excited for the future."

Sarah is now studying for a health and society degree in DCU and will never forget the fantastic care she received in the Mater Hospital.

"The nurses in the Mater Hospital are amazing, there wasn't one that I didn't love, they are really amazing people. It was them that made me consider nursing at one point," she said.

Sarah said the illness has changed her perception on life and said she now realises how "silly" it is to compare her life to others on social media.

"I shaved my head the day after I started chemotherapy because I didn't want to go through losing my hair. I really loved it," she said. "My mam actually shaved her head too at the same time. She was really amazing through it all and I think it was almost harder for her than it was for me.

"I've learned a lot and I am quite different than I was before I got sick. I've really realised how precious life is.

"I'm still so young and find myself comparing my life to others on social media but I realise how silly it is and how much I have to be grateful for. I would say to people if they are worried about their bodies to go get it checked. I had my pain for five months before I went to hospital. Don't ignore that feeling."

Irish Independent

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