Thursday 15 November 2018

'This is a rotten and horrible disease' - mother-of-one living 'on borrowed time' warns of the dangers of skin cancer

The possibility exists that Katriona Morley Smith's life will not be a long one. She tells Joy Orpen that the only way she can make sense of her own difficult journey is to warn other people about the dangers of skin cancer

Katriona Morley Smith's mission right now is to support the Irish Cancer Society's SunSmart campaign. Photo: David Conachy
Katriona Morley Smith's mission right now is to support the Irish Cancer Society's SunSmart campaign. Photo: David Conachy

When Katriona Morley Smith greets you at her home in Swords, Co Dublin, be prepared to be swept off your feet by her warm, jovial welcome. You may also notice that she is beautifully turned out, in spite of the fact that she's living on "borrowed time".

Katriona, who was born in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, over 40 years ago, attended catering college. Soon after, she did another course, in beauty therapy. Then she opened her own salon and that, unbeknown to her, set her on a downhill spiral to devastating ill-health. She explains that one of the main draws of many salons in Ireland in the 1990s was the sunbed, and hers was no exception. "I was a frequent user, much to my own detriment," she says.

As the years rolled on, Katriona's working life reflected her innate personality: full of change, energy and innovation. "I've had lots of jobs throughout the years," she says. "But I don't think I've ever missed a day - for many years, I didn't even have a doctor."

In 1998, her son, Joshua Morley, was born. "He's one of the two great loves of my life," she says. "He's the reason I get out of bed in the morning. We both adore good food, going out for nice meals, and now we are writing our own cookbook."

Some 17 years ago, Katriona met David Smith, and he's the other love of her life. An added bonus is the fact that he and Joshua get on really well together, and are very close.

So, things were going well until September 2014, when Katriona noticed that a freckle on her foot had changed colour and become raised. Unfortunately, she ignored those classic tell-tale signs of danger. However, not long after, she stubbed the same foot, causing the mole to bleed copiously. This time, she did have it checked.

"I was referred to Beaumont Hospital," she says. "They did a biopsy and sometime later, I was told it was a melanoma - in other words, I had skin cancer in my foot. I asked how we were going to get rid of it, and was told there were a number of options."

The Irish Cancer Society says about 12,000 people in Ireland each year are diagnosed with skin cancer (both melanoma and non-melanoma). About 1,000 of these are malignant melanomas.

Shortly after Katriona's diagnosis, a biopsy was done. Of the 12 samples taken from lymph nodes in her groin, 10 were found to be cancerous. It was deemed to be a Stage 4 cancer, which had already spread (metastasised). "When that happens, it's like being in the Mafia," she quips. "Once you're in, you're in; there's no getting out and no escape."

Throughout her illness, Katriona has been treated at Beaumont Hospital, and has nothing but praise for the care and attention she gets from the oncology team. "I have been on 10 different cancer drugs," she explains. "Generally speaking, I would spend 10 hours, once a week, having treatment in the oncology ward. But some of those drugs had to be stopped, because they had some horrible side-effects for me. But other people wouldn't necessarily have the same reactions," she explains, while adding that she has also had two cycles of radiation therapy.

In March 2017, Katriona realised that even though she'd been having treatment for two-and-a-half years, she wasn't getting better. So she asked how much time she had left, and was devastated to learn that, unless some miracle drug was found, she only had about a year.

"I'm now living on borrowed time," she says. "This is a rotten and horrible disease. One day, I counted 127 lesions growing on my leg. It's scary watching them grow."

But, unbelievably, a new drug did show up, and it seems to be having a positive effect on Katriona's condition. However, her most serious problem right now is a large tumour, the size of a grapefruit, which has, over the last 12 months, erupted at the top of her left leg.

"This drug I'm on, which is new on the market, is working well," explains Katriona, "but I think my tumour is just too big for it to handle. The original mole on my foot has now metastasised into an absolute beast on my thigh."

Katriona is absolutely certain that her overuse of the sunbeds in the 1990s was the catalyst for her now-dire circumstances. At that time, there was little information about the inherent dangers of these artificial tanning machines. She also avoids the sun at all costs, which, like sunbeds, emits dangerous UV rays. "When I see kids getting burned on the beach, I get really angry," she volunteers. "Why don't their parents cover them up and use strong sunscreen? Do they want to see their son or daughter looking like me [medically speaking] when they are 40? Even when it's cloudy in summer, harmful rays are still coming through. It's so scary."

What's so astonishing about Katriona is that in spite of her immensely challenging circumstances, she manages to retain a vibrant sense of humour and a positive outlook. "I wake up in the morning glad to be alive," she says. "I'm glad for the gift of this day, and hope I'll have many more. Then it could take me 20 minutes to get downstairs for my first painkillers.

"After that, I put on my make-up and do some chores, or if I'm feeling really miserable, I might go back to bed. I do miss going to work, though; I especially miss the social aspects and having an income."

As to clinical trials, Katriona says there are none in Ireland that relate to her specific situation. She did hear about one in eastern Europe, but it would have been expensive, and she didn't feel she could ask her friends to crowdfund it, as she wasn't convinced it would work.

But she does have a bucket list. Naturally, above all else, she prays and hopes for a cure; if only she could live long enough to see her grandchildren.

She was certainly thrilled to be able to tick the 'marry David' box two years ago. And somewhere, further down the list, is a long-held wish to visit magical Italy.

In the meantime, Katriona will soldier on in her own lively and inimitable way, with the help of Joshua, David, her "best buddy" Michelle Madigan, and family and friends.

Her mission right now is to support the Irish Cancer Society's SunSmart campaign, which urges every single one of us to cover up, seek shade, wear sunscreen, and to check the UV index all through the summer.

For more information on skin cancer and how to be SunSmart, see cancer.ie/reduce-your-risk/sunsmart

See gofundme.com/katriona039s-bucket-list

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