'I need to mind my baby' - first time mum on repeat cancer diagnosis
After surviving the illness as a teenager, Shannen Joyce was devastated when her cancer returned five years later. Here, the mum of one tells Denise Smith why she is documenting her story on social media
Shannen Joyce (24) was just 19 years old when she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on July 4, 2014. Exactly five years on from the horror diagnosis, the brave mum-of-one is now fighting stage 3 cancer and battling for her life for a second time.
Selflessly deciding to share her journey on Instagram, the Corkonian explains why her partner Barry and daughter Roisin (2) give her the strength to carry on.
Speaking of her initial diagnosis, the Recreation and Leisure graduate says: “I had been sick for about two weeks leading up to being hospitalised. I was still playing camogie, sitting college exams, leading a normal life, but I was tired all the time.
After a camogie session one night, Shannen felt a lump on her left groin area. It was “the size of a ping-pong ball, maybe a little smaller, but it was distinct”.
“I went to my physio because I thought it was a groin strain, but I was immediately sent for further medical advice.” Shannen says she was initially diagnosed with an ingrown hair which had most likely become infected.
She says she was prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and painkillers but despite the medication, her condition continued to deteriorate.
“I was vomiting, I had night sweats, extreme fatigue and lost weight rapidly, so I went back to the doctor.
“A few days later, I was still vomiting and couldn’t even get out of bed.”
After further consultation, Shannen says she was sent to the hospital A&E unit.
“I was diagnosed and had to go for a PET scan to see how advanced [the cancer] was.
“I had a bone marrow biopsy and aspiration done before there was a treatment plan made, and I started treatment six days later.
“Every Thursday, I was given the chemo through an IV drip and in tablet form. When I was at home, I was taking up to 22 tablets a day including steroids to keep myself built up between chemo sessions.
“Losing my hair at 19 felt like end-of-the-world stuff. I don’t think I realised how much my hair meant to me and how much I loved it until I was faced with losing it. But it’s like everything, you live with it. For me, I kept reminding myself that it will come back — some people aren’t lucky enough to have hair, but it was frightening looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself looking back.
“I fought cancer pretty quickly the first time around. After three chemo sessions, I had another PET scan and on September 18, 2014 I got the results back and was told the cancer was gone. I was one of the lucky ones. I still had three rounds of chemo to go, so I still had to face that, but having a report and seeing in black and white that your body no longer has cancer cells is unbelievable. I was so grateful; I remember that night we all went to the pub and just had the best night. It was like a weight had been lifted off my parents and I could see the relief they felt.”
Physically depleted, Shannen also speaks of the emotional fallout she endured as a result of her cancer diagnosis.
“I was not the same outgoing, sporty girl I normally was. Even though my mind was ready to go out and play championship with my girls at Youghal Camogie, I had to take a back seat.
“I went to counselling a lot, especially when everything went back to ‘normal’: it hit me what I had just gone through and I didn’t cope very well.
“I went to counselling once a week for a long time and then eventually went when I’d feel anxious. I don’t think you ever fully recover your mind from having cancer because there are such dark days that only you see.
“After chemo ended, I thought life would just go back to normal, but I had a really low immune system. I was still tired, so I took the 12 months after that to build myself back up. I went back to college to sit the exams I had missed while I had been in hospital, instead of trying to catch up on second year.
“Shortly after that, I met Barry, and shortly after that, I fell pregnant with Roisin. When I met him, that is when my life began. As cringe as it is, I knew he was the one and I’ve never looked back".
Cancer, however, was never far from her mind.
“My oncologist, who is honestly the most amazing human to walk on this earth, spoke about it returning and he said, ‘This is the type of cancer that will normally come back after two years.’
“My cancer returned almost exactly five years to the day of my initial diagnosis. Again, I felt a lump in my left groin. I had done a circuit class and my lower abdomen felt a bit tender, but I put it down to straining it at the class. I was perfectly fine, just a little tired, but I have an almost three-year-old to run around after.
“Never in a million years did I think I would get cancer again, especially so soon. I honestly had the ‘been there done that’ kind of attitude, which was so silly of me because I know cancer can come knocking to anyone at any stage.
“But I suppose life was just so good — I have my dream job, an amazing partner, gorgeous daughter, brilliant family and friends, so when it came back this soon, it did knock me.
I felt an overwhelming feeling of fear when I got the call to say it was back. But I honestly just pulled myself together.
“Circumstances are different this time, I was someone’s daughter the last time, but I am someone’s mother this time and I need to mind my baby. It is tough and it is unfair, but I’m so positive that things will be absolutely fine and I really do mean that. I’m in a much better place this time and it’s nothing we can’t overcome.”
Shannen will begin chemotherapy in September.
“At the moment, the cancer is stage 3 and in three different parts of the body It’s in the lymph nodes in my groin, chest and just under my breast bone. But the good news is, it is only in lymph nodes and not spread to any other organ or part of the body.”
Faced with the devastating reality that the aggressive treatment plan may hinder her chances to extend her family, the fitness fanatic has begun fertility treatment.
“It is emotional and just soul-destroying. Any couple that has to go through fertility treatment to have a family, hats off to them because they are amazing. I am so grateful that I have Roisin, but it killed me that I might not be able to give her a sibling.
“The last time I had no time to freeze eggs because we needed to start treatment straight away and it never really bothered me — I was young and I didn’t really understand. I went on to have Roisin naturally, even though the possibility of having fertility problems was there after having chemo.
“I always call her my little miracle baby. We did have a little bit more time this time round, so decided to freeze embryos for our future.
“I honestly thought, ‘This will be grand.’ I didn’t know about the daily injections you give yourself or that I would need to be in Dublin two or three times a week for scans to see follicle growth and the hormone levels.
“Originally, the doctor was saying it would be great to retrieve 15 to 18 eggs, but I only got six which was disheartening. But it was something. I got a call today to say out of that six, three had been fertilised. All I can do now is see if they will make it to the freezing process or will we lose more by then. All the candles are lighting for those three.
“The response on Instagram has been phenomenal. I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. So many people have reached out and told me they’ve booked their smears because of me, or they went to get that niggly pain checked because they saw my story. I just love that my story is helping people and I love chatting away to people telling me their survival stories.
“That’s why I wanted to share my story on Instagram, to give an honest insight into life with cancer and how naive you can be that you’re unwell. Never ignore your body because it will never lie to you.”
Follow Shannen on Instagram @big_c_and_me