When Denise Cannon went to see her GP about back pain, she didn’t expect it would lead to a cancer diagnosis. Here she talks about her treatment, the outlook moving forward, and learning to cope with the emotional impact of the disease
After developing a back injury following a fall in her teens, Denise Cannon was used to feeling pain in her lower back. But in February 2015, it became excruciating so she went to see her GP, who prescribed painkillers. It was believed she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, so she was referred to hospital for tests. After undergoing an MRI two months later, she was told she had a suspected fracture. This led to a referral to an orthopaedic surgeon, but further tests revealed the shocking news — the fracture was due to a secondary tumour caused by lung cancer.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness month and while the disease mostly affects people over the age of 50, the Dublin woman was only 45 when she was diagnosed. “On April 8, 2015, I was told that secondary cancer had been found in the base of my back, as a growing tumour had broken one of my vertebrates,” Denise says. “There was also a tumour on my left hip, but as they hadn’t found the primary cause, I would need further tests. Later on, an oncology doctor arrived and asked if I knew what was going on. I relayed what I knew and she said she thought I had been told the full diagnosis, and went on to tell me that I had lung cancer, which, although treatable, was not curable.”
The now 52-year-old was told she had stage four lung cancer, which had spread to the bones. Her mother had died of the same disease five years previously. Although she was devastated by the news, her initial reaction was one of calmness: “I felt like there was a heat in my body which kept me very calm — but I had no idea of the amount of emotions which would follow,” she says. “I was told that a plan was being put in place which made me feel better, but I was still very much in shock. I was a smoker, but am off them almost 12 years now. However, my oncologist didn’t think the cancer was down to smoking and wasn’t sure if it was hereditary. I wasn’t showing any signs of lung cancer so there were no red flags apart from the pain in my back.
“Following the diagnosis, I was in hospital for weeks and had to wear a body brace and use crutches for my back. I also wasn’t allowed to drive for six months, so relied on the great support from family and friends — which I found difficult as I am a very independent woman.
“I started chemotherapy in May 2015 and although I had no fear of needles, as I am also a diabetic, I cried like a baby when they put the needle in my arm. The emotions came from everywhere, as it was now official that I had cancer. I had six rounds every three weeks until September and didn’t cope very well, so my friend Maria was allowed into the ward with me. My back was still very sore, I was scared, exhausted and angry, and I felt my brain wasn’t big enough for everything going on.
“I was also having bone treatment (Zometa) every three months and had radiation therapy. But I met my clinical oncology nurse, Noleen who was (and continued to be) a great help, and my GP sent a letter to St Francis Hospice who were in touch within a week.
“I attended the outpatient clinic there on a couple of occasions but found it very stressful and upsetting to be around the other patients as I was only 45, so I didn’t go back again. But I did go to another part of the hospice once a week for many months for back massage or reflexology, and also for a bath, because I couldn’t use my own one due to my back pain — that was heavenly. (Around that time) I also started on pain relief tablets for my nerve endings. I was on a lot of medication and away with the fairies a lot of the time.”
The mother-of-one says the biggest issue was tiredness as she was completely exhausted most of the time, so whenever her daughter travelled from Mayo to see her, she spent most of the time sleeping. Her treatment finished in autumn 2015 — and while she thought the worst of it was over, this was not the case.
“I finished my treatment in September or early October and then had to go for a scan a few weeks later,” she says. “The day I was going to get the (scan) results, I remember sitting in the oncology clinic with my three sisters and looking around at the other people. Some looked very unwell and had no hair. This made me scared as I wasn’t sick and didn’t lose my hair — my only side effect was exhaustion and low energy levels, which I still suffer with.
“We were called into the room and the doctor said I looked very well and that nobody would know I had cancer unless I told them. He said my results were astounding: although the damage to my bone could be seen, there was no cancer in the lung and my lymph nodes were clear. It was a very positive appointment, and to mark it, I went out for a meal with family and friends and celebrated life.
“All was well for a good while, but in the spring of 2017, I began to feel absolutely exhausted and was admitted to St Francis Hospice, Blanchardstown, for seven weeks to rest.”
“Once the treatment was over, I felt very alone and scared. I really felt like I was on my own — I felt that my safety net was gone. This brought out the worst in me and I felt like my body had let me down. I tried to go back to work but although I had great support from colleagues, I only lasted two weeks (and subsequently retired) as I was so wrecked.
“Before I got sick, I was working and hosting students in the house — it was no bother to me to put in an 18-hour day. But around that time, I requested my medical records for the CMO at work and decided to have a glance through them. It was like a punch in the stomach when I read that my prognosis was nine months to a year.”
‘Now I am cancer-free and doing OK, as I’ve had a long time to process things — but I do get tired very easily and don’t have much energy. I miss the old Denise’
At this point, Denise was 18 months post-diagnosis and was doing well, but the realisation of how ill she had been took its toll mentally — and while she was trying to come to terms with what she had been through, the cancer unfortunately returned.
“The next couple of years (following initial treatment), I was very angry — with the world, myself and everybody around me who cared. I had to go in every three months for a CT scan and all was clear for a while, although I did pick up pneumonia and was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease in August 2018. Then in late 2019, they told me that the cancer was back in a lymph node behind my left kidney. I had to have another biopsy done and was very scared and nervous, because the previous ones I had were horrendous.
“But I had the best doctor who arranged for me to have it done as an in-patient — and unfortunately it turned out to be (a return of) the lung cancer. I started immunotherapy and was having it every second week, but within a few months, I was having a lot of side effects and was admitted to hospital on seven or eight occasions. I was very unwell and had to be extra careful because I have diabetes, coeliac disease and Addison’s Disease.
“Then in February 2021, it was decided that the treatment should be stopped as my body needed a break. Now I am cancer-free, and mentally I’m doing OK, as I’ve had a long time to process things — but I do get tired very easily and don’t have much energy. I miss the old Denise.”
Aoife McNamara, education and engagement manager at the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), says lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Ireland, with almost 2,700 people being diagnosed each year, usually those over the age of 50.
“Smoking causes about 9 in every 10 lung cancers and the risk increases with the amount of time you have smoked, the number of cigarettes you have smoked and whether you started young,” she says. “Low-tar cigarettes do not reduce your risk, but those who smoke pipes and cigars have a lower risk of lung cancer than cigarette smokers. However, they are at much greater risk than non-smokers.
“Other risk factors include passive smoking, exposure to certain chemicals, air pollution, radon and family history, and the majority of people who get lung cancer have smoked. But while rare, it is possible to get lung cancer and have never smoked. Everyone with lungs is at risk of lung cancer, so if you have symptoms, get them checked out by your GP.”
According to the ICS, having a risk factor does not mean you will definitely get cancer, but it is a good idea to consider reducing your risk by changing your behaviours.
“If you notice changes in your body, get them checked out,” says Aoife McNamara. “Remember, you know your body best, so don’t delay in visiting your GP if you notice something different. The symptoms of lung cancer are symptoms of other illnesses too, but it is important to get them checked out. Your GP will know whether you need to have any tests or to see a specialist doctor.”
Symptoms of lung cancer include:
For more information on lung cancer, visit cancer.ie/lung, or contact the Irish Cancer Society freephone support line on 1800 200 700, or via email at email@example.com.