At the age of 19, Cillian Hickey was exhausted. Not happy with his initial diagnosis, his mother brought him to hospital, where he learned he had leukaemia
Affecting just 500 people every year in Ireland, leukaemia is a relatively uncommon disease, but it can affect people of all ages — and although receiving a diagnosis can be devastating, if caught early, it is very treatable.
Cillian Hickey can attest to this as he was diagnosed with the disease when he was just 19 years old, with the symptoms initially dismissed as Covid-19.
“I first started to feel unwell around the end of July 2020,” he says. “I was really tired all the time, had no motivation to get out of bed and a very bad pain in my throat. I was supposed to have my driving test and after my last driving lesson, I fainted and was rushed to South Doc (out-of-hours doctors’ surgery). They thought it happened due to heat stroke (as it was very hot at that time) or that I had Covid.
“I was bed bound for a week or two and then around the first week of August, I started getting sick and was throwing up blood, so my mother took me to South Doc again and I was told again that I probably had Covid or glandular fever.
“But my mother wasn’t happy with that diagnosis, and took me to hospital — and that is when I found out that I had leukaemia.”
The young man, who is currently studying marketing in NTU, says he felt so ill that the reality of what was happening didn’t sink in at the time.
“When I went to hospital, I was apparently at a critical stage, but I don’t remember much about that night and didn’t have much of a reaction,” he says. “I just wanted to sleep as I was so tired, so hearing I had leukaemia didn’t faze me at all. It wasn’t until a week or two later that the reality of what was going on actually hit me.
“But that night, I was admitted straight away and not long after, went into cardiac arrest because my blood cell count was so low. They were trying to draw blood from me for an hour or two but the only thing keeping me going was my heart and it was really racing because it was under so much pressure — so I went into cardiac arrest and was given six bags of blood, but I don’t remember anything at all.”
Once medics had managed to stabilise Cillian, who has three brothers, he was then started on a course of chemotherapy, which he initially reacted well to. But after six weeks of treatment, he relapsed and had to undergo a stem cell transplant and was put on a stronger dose of medication. Following this, his recovery began, and by the middle of 2022, he was finally on the mend.
“I was on my first lot of chemotherapy treatment for nine months, from August 2020 until May 2021,” he says. “This went well but then I relapsed in October of 2021 and was put on a stronger chemo drug. I had to have a stem cell transplant in Dublin, which was a really tough time. But I finished in March of 2022. I lost my hair during the treatment, and it took about six months for it to grow back, then another five or six months after all the treatment was finished for my energy levels to come back and for me to stop getting sick.
“I was very pale and weak for the first five or six months but now I’m doing very well — I have good energy and a good appetite, and I’ve even started back in the gym and am building up my physical strength. But I have to say that mentally it’s still tough. However, having said that, being in contact with friends and family throughout the treatment made it easier.”
The Cork man is thankfully out the other side of his ordeal, and would encourage anyone else who is going through something similar to try and stay positive, take all of the support offered by friends, family and health professionals, and look towards the future.
“The advice I would give to someone who has recently been diagnosed, would basically be to never give up hope, because even though I’ve gone through it once and had a relapse, since I’ve come out of treatment, it has all been worth it as I’m now well,” he says. “I would also say that in terms of staying in contact with people, this helped a lot, so make sure to do that as it can be very lonely in a hospital room for however long your treatment is. Then once you are out the other side, you can get back to sport and the gym and all that stuff.
“When you’re in hospital it seems like you will never get back to it but as long as you keep fighting each day and taking things day by day, or hour by hour on the tough days, it will be worth it in the end, and you’ll get through it.
“To anyone who has symptoms they’re not sure of, I would say to be aware of what is going on. When I was first feeling tired, I didn’t think anything of it but my mother could see that I was a bit sicker than was normal, so she was right to go get me checked. And the first time she was told it was glandular fever she knew that it wasn’t right — I was her son and she just knew that it was more than that, so thankfully she was persistent and rushed me into hospital.
“So I would say listen to your body and get things checked, because there is no shame in doing that and asking the doctors what they think — that is what they are there for — and ask a family member or friend to come with you as it can be a scary thing to do on your own. I went through a tough time physically and mentally but now I’m cancer-free and feel proud of myself and everyone who stood by me. I’m really happy to be just getting on with my life.”
For more, see cancer.ie
⬤ Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow.
⬤ It is difficult to group all the symptoms of leukaemia together because the different types of leukaemia can affect the body in different ways. However, if you notice any unexplained change in your body, get it checked out by your GP.
The kinds of symptoms to keep an eye out for include.
⬤ Tiredness (fatigue), shortness of breath, weakness, headaches, pale skin.
⬤ Recurrent infections or high temperatures/fever.
⬤ Blood in your urine, gums, or stools (poo), unexplained bruising, tiny red spots on your skin.
⬤ Aching bones and joints.
⬤ Weight loss / Loss of appetite.
⬤ Night sweats / fever.
⬤ Enlarged lymph glands in your neck, underarm, stomach or groin.
⬤ Enlarged spleen — poor appetite, swollen tummy, or tummy pain.
⬤ Sepsis - you may feel generally unwell, have a high or low temperature, or feel shivery.
⬤ Learn more at cancer.ie and if you’re worried, talk to your GP or contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line on Freephone 1800 200 700.