After initially dismissing symptoms, Jane McCoy decided to get herself checked out. Tests revealed bowel cancer that had spread. She shares how living with cancer has taught her to treasure each moment
As every busy mother knows, tiredness is a factor of everyday life and when looking after everyone else’s needs before your own, weight gain can also be attributed to having no time to exercise.
But when these two symptoms were also accompanied by loss of appetite and stomach pains, Jane McCoy began to think that perhaps something else was amiss. She made an appointment to see her GP, and following an admission to hospital, was devastated to learn that her symptoms were due to something a lot more serious.
“In August 2021, I felt extremely fatigued, but put this down to being busy with four children on their summer holidays,” she says. “Then, at the start of September, I began to feel very bloated, to the point that none of my trousers were comfortable on me. I just thought this was due to weight gain caused by the Covid-19 lockdowns. But then, over the course of a few weeks, I began to get pains in my stomach at night, I felt nauseous and my appetite disappeared. Also, I still couldn’t shake the extreme tiredness.
“Around three weeks after the first stomach ache, I went to see my GP as I wanted to get some medication to ease it and was incredibly lucky that the doctor on call that day was absolutely fantastic. She took my complaints very seriously, took some blood and although she felt I had gallstones, arranged for me to have an ultrasound to confirm.
“The appointment was booked for two days later and I was delighted that it happened so fast, but my bubble was burst when the GP rang to say she wasn’t happy with my blood results. Apparently, my liver enzymes were raised and she advised me to go straight to A&E. I thought this was overdramatic and suggested I wait until I was going in (for the scan), but she insisted that I go the next morning. So I agreed and went in the next day. Little did I know that it would be two weeks before I would go home.”
While waiting to be seen in A&E, the 39-year-old said she felt like ‘a bit of a phoney’ as she had begun to feel better and as the triage nurses ‘poked and prodded’ at her stomach, they questioned why the GP had sent her to hospital.
But thankfully, she was sent for further tests, following which she was admitted and within a few hours, received the devastating news that she had cancer.
“After the ultrasound, I was told they would be keeping me overnight and that I would need to have a CT scan in the morning,” says the mother of four children aged 14, 10, seven and five. “I asked the doctor if he needed to get a closer look at the ‘gallstones’ before removing them and he muttered a yes. But then I was transferred to my own room, which I found strange, and a lot of hassle for the sake of one night.
“The next morning I had my CT scan and the staff informed me that I would probably have to stay in for the weekend as my scan report wouldn’t be back until the Monday. Although I was frustrated to be stuck in hospital, I started to settle in.
“But then later that afternoon, the ‘gastro’ consultant came into my room as she was finishing up her shift. She sat on my bed, took my hand and told me that the scan had shown a thickening in my bowel. The look in her eyes said it all and I asked her if she meant cancer — she said yes.
“My whole world started to spin and I just couldn’t believe it. She tried to assure me that they would just cut it out and I would be OK but over the next few days, things went from bad to worse as I learned that I had advanced bowel cancer, which had spread to my liver, lymph nodes and lungs.
"I had to wait for five days to meet my oncologist and find out what the treatment plan was — these were the longest and hardest days of my life. Everything was going through my mind — if I would see Christmas, if I would ever get home and if I would even see my four-year-old start school. I felt like I was drowning and I just wanted someone to save me.”
Jane, who lives in Wicklow with her husband and children, was diagnosed with advanced cancer, which was inoperable and incurable. But she was told that it could be treated. A week later, started a course of chemotherapy which would be repeated every fortnight for the next six months, following which, she would be scanned again and doctors would decide the next course of action.
It has been a very tough road so far, but she is determined to try and remain positive. “During my six months of chemo, they also got results back from my liver biopsy which showed I have the BRAF mutation,” she says. “This occurs in just 10pc of bowel cancers (and) is the most aggressive type.
“Luckily, in the last couple of years, new targeted drugs have been approved for BRAF patients which have been proven to be very successful at keeping the cancer at bay for a time, so I am currently on this regime and doing well on it. But once the cancer becomes resistant to these drugs, which it will, I will move on to another chemo. Hearing that the cancer had metastasised was probably the lowest point in the last year for me. But the nurses were brilliant and I will never forget how caring and kind they were in my darkest hours.
“The mental side of things has been much harder than the physical side. Because although I feel rubbish after treatment, that’s the norm with chemo and once I began on it, my pain went away and it has never really returned. So I worked a lot on my mindset — I went to see a healer, had many counselling sessions and, most importantly, I have the most amazing family and friends who I’ve been able to talk to about everything on a regular basis. This all helps to keep my mental health in check.
“Also, when I was first diagnosed, my brother suggested I book a trip every month during treatment to have something to look forward to — we have had more trips in the last year than the previous five, but it has been great. As a family, we have made lots of memories and will continue to do so for as long as possible. What cancer has taught me is to live in the moment and that all that matters is the people around us.”
Being diagnosed with cancer is undoubtedly extremely difficult and hearing that it is metastatic, must be even harder to bear. But many people are living with incurable cancer and Jane would advise anyone with a similar diagnosis to avail of any support available, and try to find some positivity in their lives.
“People want to help but often don’t know how, so it can be good to give them specific jobs to do such as picking up kids from school or making dinner — I think they appreciate this and feel good to be able to do something useful to help,” she says.
“I would also advise people to look after their mental health — go to counselling, make sure to get enough sleep and continue to do the things they love doing — or try something new. I took up golf for the first time and really enjoy it. I think it’s important to keep moving and just live life to the fullest.
“Also, I found online Facebook groups (either in Ireland or abroad) to be brilliant for connecting with others going through the same thing. These are a great way to get tips and advice, and I have made many good friends on these groups.
“One of my nurses advised me to treat my cancer like a chronic illness, so that’s what I do. Going up and down to hospital isn’t always ideal but it is possible to live a great life in between treatments. Having metastatic cancer is not a death sentence — there are new treatments all the time, so there is always hope.”
You can find further information on metastatic cancer at mariekeating.ie. Throughout January the Marie Keating Foundation is running ‘Your Health Your Choice’, promoting cancer prevention through healthier lifestyle choices. See mariekeating.ie/your-health-your-choice