Tuesday 20 February 2018

Becoming infertile and going through menopause at 32 among worst aspects of cancer treatment - journalist Una Mullally

The well-known campaigner has been speaking about being 'cancer-free'

Una Mullally. Twitter.
Una Mullally. Twitter.

Sasha Brady

After nine months of treatment for bowel cancer, journalist and author Una Mullally has been told that she is now cancer-free.

In an interview on RTE Radio One's Ray D'Arcy programme earlier this afternoon, the journalist and author spoke about the relief she's experiencing upon hearing the news that she's now cancer free.

This time last year, Mullally was looking forward to Christmas completely unaware that she would be diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer just three months into the new year.

"It's kind of unprecedented that I would be in this situation at this time. I'm delighted. I'm very lucky," said the 32-year-old.

Mullally went in for a routine colonoscopy on Friday, March 13th last, when doctors found a large cancerous tumour.

She was told she had bowel cancer shortly afterwards and and underwent treatment for over nine months.

There was no history of cancer in her family, and the writer describes diagnosis as a "complete anomaly" which she puts down to "bad luck".

"It didn't really make any sense and still doesn't but I think that's the case with a lot of cancers," she said.

"I just went into very aggressive treatment and it turns out that I responded quite well to that conventional medicine.

"But I am incredibly lucky, the initial plan would have taken me up to mid-next year but as it happens I've been able to skip six months of the chemo that was laid out. That's a real blessing."

The Dubliner underwent chemotherapy infusion for six weeks in which she basically had to "wear the chemo" as it was pumped into her body 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It's not pleasant but I think that chemo is less aggressive than weekly or fortnightly treatment.

"I was getting radiation at the same time every day... it really only hits you a few weeks into the treatment. You're wrecked. You can't even pick up a cup," she said.

As part of her treatment, Mullally had to suffer the removal of various body parts.

"They took away the tumour, thankfully, and most of my rectum, good bit of my bowel, bit of my colon. I also had to have a full hysterectomy and my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed... which was very unfortunate.

"Also in that surgery they gave me an ileostomy - which is when they loop a bit of your bowel and take it out through your abdomen and stitch it to your skin and then they put a pouch over that and that's how you go to the bathroom."

Four months later surgery to reverse that ileostomy.

"I look like a shark attack victim or something," she joked.

"Every single case of cancer is different. Every single case of bowel cancer is different. So in my case, that's just what had to happen.

"Cancer kills you so you have to take all the negative side effects of treatment or surgical intervention or else... well I suppose there is no 'or else'."

Right from the start, doctors had warned Mullally that the radiation treatment would probably make her infertile. There was an option for her to freeze her eggs but that would have delayed the procedure so she decided to get treatment as quick as possible.

There was a big sense of urgency around her case so she made the decision to go for the radiation treatment straight away and it soon became clear that Mullally was infertile.

"You kind of get plunged into this accelerated menopause," she said.

The writer described it as "one of the worst aspects" of her treatment.

Mullally and her partner Sarah had already decided not to have children and she understands that for another person, a hysterectomy could have been a "far more devastating" situation to go through.

"At the same time I found it really difficult. For any relatively young woman, so much of your femininity is attached to your fertility so being infertile is one thing but having to go through menopause at 32 is another thing.

"Nobody talks about that aspect of things which makes it really difficult to find information on symptoms or how to alleviate them."

Mullally also revealed that it's difficult to understand how her digestive system is operating after the cancer treatment and needs to follow a strict diet.

She admitted she can now no longer consume coffee, Guinness, beer, red wine, food that's high in fibre, citrus fruits, spicy food, anything acidic, red meat and processed meat, among others.

It can take a person five years of remission to be cancer-free or "cured" and while Mullally has been told that there is no cancer in her body at present, she unfortunately cannot say that the threat of the disease returning has disappeared completely.

The Irish Times journalist was told that she now has a 70 per cent chance of a five year survival.

Although, she was overjoyed with the news, Mullally revealed it was quite difficult to take it in after all her body had been through.

"For anyone who has had to think about their own mortality, you really start to understand what perspective means. I've become far more sensitive I think and a bit more vulnerable which I don't think I would have described myself as before.

"I'm also really grateful for how lucky I am. I know friends of mine who are dealing with cancer this year and are in harder situations than I am in. Especially parents who are dealing with children who have cancer. I can't even imagine what that would be like."

Her newfound perspective has encouraged her to stop worrying about the little things.

"My girlfriend was saying to me that I've stopped worrying about things. Previously I would have gotten annoyed or stressed about things but now I don't care," she said.

Mullally also said that the words of Clodagh Cogley, survivor of the Berekely tragedy really resonated with her and inspired her new attitude.

Clodagh wrote on in a Facebook post: “Life is short and I intend to honour those who died by living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible. Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it’s the last time because in this crazy world you never know when it might be.”

"I am incredibly thankful just to be here," said Mulally.

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