'I've got nothing to lose' - Mother-of-two diagnosed with terminal cancer fights for experimental drug treatment
A 43-year-old mother-of-two who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer is battling to undergo experimental drug treatment in order to prolong her life.
Vicky Phelan - who lives in Annacotty, County Limerick with her husband Jim and two children, Amelia (12) and Darragh (7) - was first diagnosed with cervical cancer in July 2014.
Vicky underwent an aggressive form of radiation and chemotherapy and was eventually given the all-clear.
She had been cancer-free for almost three years until a routine scan in November 2017 revealed that the cancer returned.
"I told my gynecologist that I had been suffering with lower back pain so he sent me for a CT scan two weeks later and then a pep scan," she told Independent.ie.
The appointment came just weeks before Christmas. Vicky didn't reveal anything to her family and continued along as normal so as not to worry her loved ones over Christmas. However, she said it was hard to shake the worry and fear completely.
"I was worried but I didn't want to ruin Christmas for everyone. At that stage I was pretty positive that I was going to be okay. It's always in the back of your mind but you think you'll be fine," she said.
Vicky's test results returned on December 29. She was brought in to meet her oncologist who confirmed her worst fears.
"He told me there was a large mass of lymph nodes attached to my aorta and it's inoperable. I also couldn't have any radiation therapy because I already underwent 28 sessions the first time, which is the maximum limit. So there was nothing they could do, nothing they could offer me other than palliative care.
"I was told I have six to 12 months left and that was it. It was all so matter-of-fact. It didn't feel like my life was ending and yet I was being told that it was."
Vicky refused to accept the terminal diagnosis. She was sure that there were other options available to her. Through her job as manager of the Literacy Development at Waterford Institute of Technology, Vicky is used to writing and submitting fund proposals. She refers to herself as a "natural researcher" and said she was convinced that if she searched hard enough, she would find other options.
"I'm still well. I'm not sick, that's the hard part," she said. "To look at me you wouldn't know that I have cancer. I mean, I have back pain and I'm tired but I feel fine. I feel... normal."
Vicky said that she was inspired by her "fighter" daughter Amelia to pursue other options. The 12-year-old suffers from congenital toxoplasmosis and has been in and out of hospital all her life but is a "strong girl" who Vicky said takes it all in her stride.
"She's used to seeing doctors, she's been in and out of hospital since she was a baby. Last year we were up in Crumlin Hospital every six weeks. She has to see a neurosurgeon in Limerick. She has a visual impairment. She also had to have serious skin grafts when she was badly burned in 2013. None of it fazes her, she gets on with things," said Vicky.
"I want to get on with my life. I want to prove my oncologists wrong. I don't want to be another statistic," she said.
Vicky came across a clinical trial in Maryland, USA, that involves two new breakthrough drugs. One is an immunotherapy drug called Pembrolizumab. The drug has only been been approved by the HSE for treatment of certain types of skin cancer, not cervical cancer.
"The pharmaceutical companies won't licence the drug for cancers like mine because they don't see it as worth the risk as only a small number of patients are affected by it. It's a numbers game at the end of the day," she said.
The trial in Maryland is led by Dr Christian Heinrich. Vicky chose this trial specifically as the doctor specialises in treating cancers caused by the HPV virus.
"It's my best chance of survival," she said. "This trial has had some success. There was one woman who was far worse than me. She had cancer in her lungs and liver and she's completely cancer-free now."
Vicky has been provisionally accepted to the trial. They only take one patient per month and Vicky is hopeful that she will be accepted by March.
The entire cost of the treatment is €140,000. Pembrolizumab costs €25,000 per dose. Vicky has set up a GoFundMe account to raise money and has so far received €84,167 in seven days. Friends and family members have also been organising fundraisers to cover costs.
A friend of Vicky's has been in touch with their local Fine Gael representative, Cllr Kieran O'Donnell. It's understood that he has spoken to Minister for Health Simon Harris to see if the mother-of-two can undergo treatment in Ireland. She is expected to have the news confirmed this Friday.
Vicky said that the overwhelming support for her cause has "incredibly encouraging".
"People are so good, they really are. I was so surprised that we raised as much money as we have so far. It feels like I have so much support. I've even had Irish people in America, who I don't know, offer to put me up and drive me to the clinic when I'm in Maryland.
"Cancer touches every family. I know that many people don't have the opportunity that I have right now and I want to do everything I can to fight this."
Vicky said that she has "nothing to lose" and fighting for this treatment has given her hope, something she claims her own doctors couldn't offer her.
"If it doesn't work, my diagnosis will still remain the same. I look at my daughter and she's so good, she's had a lot thrown at her. I don't want her to lose her mother on top of everything else. I want to see my children grow up. I have hope now.
"I'm not accepting that this is it for me."
A number of fundraisers have been set up for Vicky including a table quiz and auction night in the Casthetroy Park GHotel in Limerick on Friday, March 2; there is a "shave, wax or dye" even taking place at the Rose of Mooncoin pub on March 31; Peter Mark and Boutique by Vikki will host a pamper day in the Peter Mark salon in Waterford on Sunday, March 4; a midnight walk will take place in Mooncoin on Friday, April 6 and a lip sync battle will be held at the Mooncoin pub on Saturday, April 21.
If you wish to support Vicky's GoFundMe account, you can do so here.