Friday 15 December 2017

Irish cancer survivor (16) 'I am glad I had cancer because of all the good that came of it'

Diagnosed with leukaemia aged just 12, Orla Jackman, now 16, knows all too well the struggles of fighting illness.

Orla Jackman
Orla Jackman
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

Ever since she had her own experience with the illness Orla Jackman (16) has been raising awareness and funds to fight childhood cancer.

For many people who recover from a life-threatening illness, there is a very understandable instinct to want to forget about the entire episode and move on.

However, when Orla was diagnosed with leukaemia four years ago, she began to fight; first for her life and then for the thousands of other Irish children, who are faced with the same daunting road to recovery as she was.

"The Christmas of 2009 I was very lethargic and had no energy," Orla says. "I was just very tired all the time. On Christmas night I got a pain in my lower back and I was up all night with it."

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By St. Stephen's day the pain was so bad that Orla's mother brought her to an out of hours doctor, who referred them to their local hospital in Kilkenny, but they were later sent home.

"I still wasn't getting better so for the month of January I was up and back to Tallaght Hospital each week," she says. "The pain kept moving, it was in my stomach and back as well, so on the third week they kept me. They didn't know what was happening so they went in to try and investigate."

Following this investigation Orla's doctors detected a cyst on one of her ovaries, which was removed. They also decided to remove her appendix, but Orla's condition still did not improve.

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"They sent me home saying I would have five days recovery and I would be fine, but instead of getting better over those five days I was getting worse," Orla says.

"So my mam brought me back up to Tallaght. When we were in there the doctor who had been treating me actually rang my mam, thinking that we were at home, to say that my bloods had changed and to come back in. So I was kept in then.

"My mam found out in Tallaght that I had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), but I didn't know at that stage."

Orla was quickly transferred to Crumlin Children's Hospital, where the next day her diagnosis and treatment was explained to her.

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"I really didn't know what was going on, it was kind of a big blur for me, those first couple of weeks," Orla, who was just 12 at the time, recalls.

"I was brought into theatre to get my line in where all the chemotherapy goes and then I was brought down on to St. John's Ward," she adds. "That's when I really noticed what was happening; I saw all of these kids walking around with no hair and that gave me a fright."

Orla spent a lot of time in St. John's Ward over the next six months receiving intensive chemotherapy treatment.

"My treatment plan was for two-and-a-half years," she explains. "At some stages I wasn't able to walk, talk, eat or drink. I was on a feeding tube and I lost loads of weight. I had to learn how to walk again."

"I finished up in school for the Christmas holiday and didn't go back after that," Orla adds. "I went in for a couple of days for my confirmation the following May, but I wasn't really able for it and I was on intense treatment again for the summer."

In August 2010, Orla began chemotherapy maintenance, whereby she could receive the treatment in tablet form at home, rather than spending so much time in the hospital.

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 This meant that Orla could begin secondary school with her friends.

"I started first year in secondary school then and I was able for it, but I was just tired the whole time, so I was in and out," she says. "I didn't miss too much though. I got through first year and second year, and then in the May of third year I finished my treatment.

"I had huge support from my family and friends and the school were very good to me. Going into first year is a huge change for anyone, but going in with a bandana on top of your head and no hair was an even bigger change. It was hard but I got through it," Orla adds.

Even though her recovery from ALL was a difficult process, Orla is grateful for the outlook on life the experience has now left her with.

"It was a huge part of my life," she explains. "Other people want to move on and forget about it and I can understand that too, but I felt I wanted to raise awareness and give back to the hospital because they were so good to me.

Read more: 'I lost my beloved son to cancer and then faced it myself'

"I know it might sound strange, but I'm kind of glad I went through what I went through, because so many good things have come out of it and I wouldn't be the person I am today if I didn't go through it all," Orla adds.

Orla was not just determined to get back to health; she was keen to help others like her in and began fundraising for Crumlin's St. John's Ward even while she was still undergoing treatment herself.

In September 2010, Orla and her family held their first of many fundraisers - a cycling event.

"I wanted to give something back to the hospital; myself and my family, so that's when all the fundraising started. We never realised how much money we would go on to raise," she beams.

"We held our first cycle in aid of Crumlin Hospital's St. John's ward where I was treated and for Barretstown, a camp for sick children. Then we had a table quiz in November and then the following March we had a tractor run.

"We brought in €18,000 for St. John's ward and €18,000 for Barretstown just in the first year."

Orla's cycle has now become an annual event and has even attracted some star power, with fellow Tullow native, Irish rugby international Sean O'Brien supporting the event over the last two years.

Orla now sits on the Youth Advisory Council for the new children's hospital, where she represents the views of children with cancer.

"We just give our advice from a patient's perspective, on things like hygiene and privacy for example and we got to tell them what we thought should improve," she explains. "They are building this hospital specifically for children, so they do need a child's perspective."

Last year Orla won the All Ireland Youth Volunteer of the Year award at the Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards, which resulted in a life-altering trip to Washington DC, where she got to represent the Republic of Ireland at the international awards ceremony.

"We got to do so many things over there, we got to tour around Washington and then we also got to meet Kevin Spacey," Orla explains. "It was an absolutely amazing experience. The Pramerica Awards have had a huge impact on the fundraising I do, so it has been really helpful in that way too.

"I am so thankful to be alive every day, to be here and to be able to do what some people might take for granted like getting out of bed," Orla adds. "So to be able to raise awareness and put on these fundraisers is really great."

The Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards is open to all post primary students who volunteer in their community, at school or abroad. For more information, see http://spirit.pramerica.ie/.

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