Plenty of trips to make her ‘sick eye better’ – How a routine eye exam led to discovery of rare cancer for Rachel (5)

Geraldine McGovern with her daughter, Rachel, outside their Dowra home in Co Cavan. Photo Brian Farrell

Eoghan Moloney

When five-year-old Rachel McGovern went into a routine eye exam in October last year, her mother Geraldine was not expecting a cancer diagnosis that same day to be the result.

What stemmed from that routine screening was a diagnosis of a rare form of eye cancer, retinoblastoma, which plunged the McGovern family into a world of worry.

Luckily for Rachel, she did not have the genetic form that would probably mean she had cancer in both eyes. But what lay ahead were trips abroad to make her “sick eye better”.

“Roughly only eight children a year in Ireland are diagnosed with it. It’s very, very rare and it just came out of the blue,” said Geraldine.

“I brought her to the check-up and there was nothing different about her eye, they only saw it when they put in the drops to dilate her pupil and look in at the back of her eye.

“It’s a childhood cancer and usually it happens when kids are two or three so they reckon Rachel had her tumour years but thankfully it didn’t do anything, it just sat there, thank God.”

Rachel, from Dowra, Co Cavan, went for an immediate MRI to ensure that tumours had not spread elsewhere in her head. Fortunately the cancer was contained.

Due to the fact Rachel’s cancer is so rare, there was no course of treatment available in Ireland so it was just a matter of days before she began a course of intra-arterial chemotherapy administered directly to her eye in Birmingham.

“It was all a huge shock and it just felt so far away from home to be getting treatment when they told us to go home and make sure our passports were in date,” Geraldine said.

Luckily for Rachel, due to the targeted nature of the chemo, she was not sick because of the treatment and was able to continue in school except for her short trips to Birmingham from her home in Cavan.

“She was not sick before, during or after her treatment, thank God. We told her that she had a sick eye and she needed to go to hospital to make it better,” Geraldine said.

Rachel responded well to the chemotherapy and finished the course. But she still returns for laser therapy and will complete her full course of treatment in the coming months.

At one stage we were going once a week as Rachel was on injections and they had to be a week apart

The trips abroad for treatment meant extra costs for the family, such as flights and hotels, but luckily for them the “wonderful” Gavin Glynn Foundation stepped in and helped with the added costs.

The foundation was set up by the family of Gavin, who died of in 2014, to help the families of children who have to travel abroad to battle cancer.

“I contacted John Glynn and they organised and paid for everything we needed, and the HSE covered her treatment. It was just fantastic. At one stage we were going once a week as Rachel was on injections and they had to be a week apart.

“We, as a family, wanted to do something for the Gavin Glynn Foundation, and so far it has raised €84,000 to date. It’s amazing and I think 34 children went out thanks to that foundation last year,” Geraldine said.

Geraldine is also grateful for the support she received from the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) Support Line, particularly in the days after Rachel’s diagnosis.

“It was just great to talk to someone that knows what you’re taking about. It was such a shock, and now that things have settled it really has hit me now like a ton of bricks.”

The McGovern family also received help from the ICS Children’s Fund to help with the financial burden a cancer diagnosis brings.

“It was a huge help, my husband Noel is a farmer, so he had to employ someone else to look after the farm while he took care of their other two children, Róisín and Kevin, as I travelled to and from Birmingham for Rachel’s treatment.

“We also had to travel up and down to Dublin for appointments, all the costs add up,” said Geraldine.

Rachel is excelling once again and is thriving in school, and Geraldine says her story is “one of the positive ones” and shows the importance of public health checks for children.

The Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day takes place this Friday. Go to to get involved or donate