Sarcoma: Friends in need
Antoinette Kearns's cancer came to light only after a fall from her horse, she tells Joy Orpen. And, during her years of treatment, she discovered just how kind strangers can be
If this young woman from Portmarnock hadn't fallen off her horse, she might not be with us today. That fall led to a small operation, which in turn revealed a very dangerous tumour and led to surgery in New York.
Antoinette Kearns, 26, was riding her horse, Patch, in March 2004, when she fell, hurting her hip. A few days later, though she was still sore, she went travelling with a friend around Europe.
She recalls one particularly uncomfortable 13-hour train ride. "I just thought the pain and swelling were from sitting so long," she recalls.
When Antoinette got home, she went to her doctor.
"She thought it could be an abscess caused by the fall and so I went into Beaumont Hospital to have it removed under anaesthetic," Antoinette says. "I was meant to be in and out in a day, but when I woke up I was in a proper ward."
One of the other patients, speculating on why Antoinette was being kept in, surmised: "Well, you are too young and healthy to have cancer." The comment stopped Antoinette dead in her tracks. "I had never even considered cancer, I just thought it was a really bad abscess," she says. When it was discovered that the problem was not an abscess, tests were done before Antoinette went home.
A few days later, she was told that she had a tumour and she was warned it might be malignant.
She was subsequently ordered back into hospital, and stayed there for most of the month of April.
After more biopsies failed to precisely name the tumour, it was removed and sent for analysis to Boston, where it was identified as a fairly rare sarcoma. Sarcomas are cancers that can occur in connective tissue anywhere in the body, but most commonly manifest in the legs, abdomen, arms and trunk.
Antoinette's was assessed as a grade three sarcoma -- the worst being five -- with cells on the margin, which meant the cancer had spread.
As Antoinette's Irish doctors were not familiar with her specific problem, she was referred to Dr Samuel Singer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Five months after the initial fall, Antoinette and four family members flew to the Big Apple.
Dr Singer had successfully operated on a girl with the same condition the week before, so that gave the Kearns some hope. But the doctors were baffled by the fact Antoinette had the growth in her hip. "Normally it grows in the cartilage in the arms or legs," she explains.
The first step involved efforts to reduce the size of the tumour.
"I had radiation for six weeks. It burnt me quite badly and I was really exhausted and felt freezing cold," Antoinette recalls.
The beauty of radiation is that while cancer cells will eventually die in the process, healthy cells usually recover.
Following her treatment, Antoinette was given a month's break, but she was not allowed to fly home because her immune system had been compromised.
But she didn't really mind as she was getting on well in New York. The Irish Echo newspaper there had run an article about Antoinette's plight and search for accommodation near the hospital -- the response had been brilliant. From all the offers of help, the Kearns family opted for an apartment offered by dynamic filmmaker and activist Brendan Fay, from Drogheda and his partner, Dr Tom Moulten. "They are the most amazing people I have ever met," says Antoinette. "They are like my two dads and I see them every time I go for my six-month check-ups."
Later, more generous people, Brian and Jackie Heary, were to act as unstinting hosts to Antoinette, her mum and sister.
Finally, in November, Antoinette had her surgery. "It was horrendous," she recalls. "They removed loads of tissue from around the hip and they used tissue from inside the thigh to rebuild the place where the tumour had been. They got rid of everything they thought might be suspicious. The operation was horrible and I was on so much medication I was violently sick."
Of course, Antoinette was in a great deal of pain, but she was just really grateful that her life had been saved.
Finally, four months later, though still swathed in bandages and dressings, she was able to return home for Christmas.
She resumed studying for her degree in Media Studies.
Two years, later the ugly spectre of the tumour returned when more rogue cells were found. This time, the cells were removed surgically.
Though Antoinette was disheartened, she managed to remain positive.
But, when bad cells showed up a third time, Antoinette's resolve was so shaken she sought help.
"I went for counselling at the Irish Cancer Society centre near the Mater Hospital. It was warm and welcoming and they offered other free services such as reflexology, yoga and support groups," she says.
Antoinette says that while her family and friends were utterly loving and tirelessly supportive throughout her lengthy ordeal, there were times when she did not want to add to their distress by telling them just how afraid she was, so having an independent ear helped.
"I was able to say whatever I wanted -- to let it all out, without fear I would add to anyone's pain. It was great to talk to someone who didn't know me," Antoinette says.
She would urge anyone who is experiencing the trauma of cancer to go for counselling: "You may need to get things off your chest. How long you go for depends on you -- and, of course, it is free."
She is so grateful that she will be raising funds for the Irish Cancer Society by rattling her collection box on Daffodil Day on March 26.
It is now six years since she and Patch parted company in the literal sense, and though she had two scares following her major surgery in New York, Antoinette has been given the all-clear for the past three years.
This gorgeous-looking girl has just moved into an apartment overlooking the sea in Malahide with her partner, Norman Champ, a CityJet pilot.
She is the picture of good health with her long, glossy hair and her trim figure, but it is her positive attitude to her problems that really inspires. "I have learned how incredibly great my family is and how strong I am," she says. "I would say to anyone who gets sick -- get back to normal as soon as you can. And if you need someone to talk to, go and get counselling, it really does help."
If you have concerns about cancer, freephone the Cancer Helpline, (1800) 200-700, or see www.cancer.ie