Tuesday 20 November 2018

'I made my father-of-the-bride speech and got such a huge standing ovation' - former garda (62) who battled aggressive cancer

Being told he had an aggressive form of cancer was devastating news for former garda Eddie MacEoin. But he tells Joy Orpen, his fortunes changed dramatically, following his participation in a pioneering clinical trial

Former garda Eddie MacEoin. Photo: David Conachy
Former garda Eddie MacEoin. Photo: David Conachy

Not so very long ago, following a devastating diagnosis, Eddie MacEoin, 62, thought his days were numbered.

However, the main concern for this former senior garda and his wife, Teresa, was how they would break the news to their children. Fortunately, not long after, Eddie was offered the opportunity to participate in an important clinical trial, which he now believes saved his life.

Eddie knew from a very young age that he would become a member of the Garda Siochana. "All I ever wanted was to help people," he explains. "My father was a guard, my uncle was a guard, and my aunt was married to a guard. I didn't want anything else." Over the years, he was stationed at Templemore, Dublin (Pearse Street), Dunmanway, Clonakilty, Limerick and Bandon.

In 1979, quite by chance, he found himself spending the weekend in a B&B in Portlaoise. Mary Dunne, the owner of that establishment, had a daughter called Teresa who was working as a telephonist in faraway Letterkenny. However, that weekend, Teresa decided to come home, and that's when she met Eddie for the very first time. They have been together ever since.

This is a couple that seems to be really well matched and in tune with one another - for example, they often finish each other's sentences. Having a good relationship would have been critical, given that Eddie's job required them to move quite a lot. And given that he rose to the rank of superintendent, he must have been well supported at home.

Another factor was doing work he enjoyed. "I loved every minute of it," he says. "I liked to be out in the community, patrolling, meeting people and interacting with my colleagues." He and Teresa, who now live in Bandon, Co Cork, have three grown-up children - Aoife, Eimear and Daire.

In May 2014, Eddie retired, following 40 years of service. He and Teresa planned to spend their well-earned retirement travelling and having fun. But life did what life often does - threw them a curve ball. "The following October, I began going to the bathroom more often at night," says Eddie. His GP diagnosed a somewhat enlarged prostate gland.

The prostate gland, which is about the size of a walnut, sits below the bladder, while the urethra, which drains urine from the bladder, runs through it. The doctor also did a blood test to determine Eddie's prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels. An increase in PSA may (or may not) indicate cancer. In this instance, Eddie's PSA levels were only slightly raised, so no immediate action was needed. Nonetheless, his doctor kept a close eye on him.

However, in February 2015, Eddie's PSA levels suddenly shot up. So he was referred to a consultant urologist at Cork University Hospital (CUH), who did a biopsy. "Of the 12 samples they took from my prostate gland, 10 were found to be cancerous," says Eddie. "The only words I heard [during that consultation] were, 'cancer', 'aggressive' and 'large tumour'."

Teresa also remembers that life-changing meeting vividly. "It was terrifying. The bottom fell out of our world," she says. "We had one daughter married, while another was engaged. I thought Eddie would never live to see his grandchildren."

Adding to that body of evidence was the result of Eddie's Gleason score; this test indicates the speed at which cancer is developing. Eddie got 10. "In other words, it was a high-grade tumour," he explains. "It was so shocking, we couldn't even talk," says Teresa. "Our biggest concern was how we were going to tell the children." Arrangements were then made for Eddie to have a scan and other tests.

But not all was lost. In the midst of all these most alarming revelations, came the great news that the cancer was still contained within the gland. "One of the most important things to know about prostate cancer is that it can spread to other parts of the body," explains Eddie. "So getting an early diagnosis is really crucial in preventing that."

Nonetheless, urgent intervention was still required. However, surgery was deemed inadvisable. "The consultant said, if I was his father, he wouldn't recommend surgery for me because of the size of the tumour," explains Eddie.

Instead, he was referred on to a consultant radiation oncologist at CUH. Following discussions, it was suggested that Eddie become part of a clinical trial, which involved a drug, new to this country, in combination with intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

Eddie chose the clinical trial. In April 2015, he began having drug and hormone therapy to shrink the tumour. In August, he embarked on 39 sessions of radiation therapy, over eight weeks. "They put three permanent marks on my body, so they could target specific areas," he explains. However, even before he began having radiotherapy, it had been ascertained that the drug was working so well, the tumour was already shrinking. "That was a great boost," he says.

In the midst of all this, their daughter Aoife got married. And that brought another unexpected benefit. "After I made my father-of-the-bride speech, I got such a huge standing ovation, I nearly wept," Eddie recalls.

In total, Eddie was on treatment for two years. The most difficult side-effect was the profound fatigue. "He could fall asleep at the drop of a hat," says Teresa, who adds that the support they got, and continue to get, from the clinical-trial team was unbelievable. "He was given a mobile number to call at any time, should he have any concerns," she says. "The team was just outstanding, as were the staff at CUH - all of them."

Eddie says back in 2015 when the trial was first suggested, he didn't have much hope. "I was thinking, 'This is it. It's all over for me. But maybe, by doing this trial I can help someone else'," he says.

On the contrary, thanks to that very same trial, Eddie is now cancer-free. In fact, he and Teresa got a whole new lease of life, when, in 2016, their grandchildren, Laoise and James, were born.

"We fought this together," says Eddie. "She was absolutely fabulous throughout," he adds, smiling at his wife.

"We also had great support from neighbours and friends, while our kids were just outstanding," concludes Teresa.

To mark International Clinical Trials Day today, Cancer Trials Ireland is calling on people living with cancer to ask their doctor if there is a relevant trial that might increase their treatment options, see cancertrials.ie Twitter: @cancertrials_ie

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