Wednesday 21 November 2018

'When I got cancer, I faced the prospect of being childless. But then a knight in shining armour (or scrubs) showed up at the 11th hour'

When Eilish Behan got cancer, she faced the prospect of being childless all her life. But she tells Joy Orpen, a knight in shining armour (well, in scrubs) showed up at the 11th hour, and now she is delighted to be a mother of two

Eilish Behan with her husband Anthony and their children Finn (3) and River (16 months). Photo: Mark Condren
Eilish Behan with her husband Anthony and their children Finn (3) and River (16 months). Photo: Mark Condren

Some years back, Eilish Behan (32) decided to give up cigarettes. Little did she know that this important but seemingly innocuous decision would take her on a journey that, even though it was difficult, would ultimately save her life.

Eilish's quest to give up the fags was prompted by the fact that her partner, Anthony, had developed a smoker's cough, even though he didn't indulge. In essence, he was suffering the consequences of her bad habit. There was also the cost of her nicotine addiction; about €3,000 a year. So she ditched the cancer sticks. "Even though I went on the patches, I put the money I would have spent on cigarettes in a jar," Eilish explains. She adds, "Within a short space of time, I had enough to join the gym. I wanted to exercise more to avoid the cravings, and so I wouldn't put on the pounds. I also began cycling to work."

Just a few weeks into the programme, Eilish, who works in retail, couldn't fail to notice that she was losing weight and getting fitter and healthier by the day. She went from 14 stone to 11 stone, but no matter what she did, she couldn't get to her goal weight of 10-and-a-half stone, even though her appetite had diminished. "I wanted to be able to fit into size-12 jeans," she explains.

Then one day, while on her way home from work, she began to experience such a bad pain in her lower stomach that she doubled up in agony. But just as quickly, the cramp disappeared.

However, she also suffered from excessive menstrual bleeding. "My periods were really heavy," she explains. "And I used to bleed following intimacy, which, as most women know, is not a good sign. So I had a smear test, and when I didn't hear back, I called them. I was very relieved when they said everything was fine."

Nonetheless, Eilish's symptoms continued to worsen. The most obvious was her expanding stomach, which had become so pronounced, people began to think she was pregnant. Then one day an elderly woman bumped into her in the department store where she worked, and was so certain Eilish was pregnant that she wouldn't allow her to pack her shopping bags.

"When I told my mother about this, she said I should go to the doctor straight away. I wore a fitted T-shirt, and when I sat down, I said to the doctor, 'I'm not pregnant'. And she just couldn't believe it, because at that point, I looked like I was nine months pregnant," Eilish recalls. "So she did a pregnancy test, which proved negative. And when I told her about my other symptoms, she sent me straight to the A&E in Ballinasloe."

At the hospital, on that Friday in March 2013, X-rays showed that Eilish's bowel and bladder were obstructed. She was given laxatives and sent home. The following Monday, she called the hospital and was given an appointment six weeks away.

However, within minutes of that call, the doctor who had originally attended to her in A&E, phoned, and told her to forget about the appointment down the line; she was to come to the hospital straight away instead.

"I was impressed she had kept track of me, even though she was so busy in the emergency department," says Eilish. Following ultrasound and CT [computed tomography] scans, she was told she had a large cyst on one of her ovaries, which could be cancerous, and that it would require surgery.

She then sensibly decided to get a second opinion from a gynaecologist, who, in turn, referred Eilish on to Bill Boyd, a consultant gynaecologist oncologist at the Mater Private Hospital.

He performed surgery the very next day. During the procedure, 22 litres of fluid were drained from the cyst, which was then removed. "When I went into hospital I was 11 stone, and when I came out, I was around eight," says Eilish. The affected ovary had also been removed, as it contained a small growth. "I left feeling very positive," she says.

Prior to her follow-up visit six weeks later, she was advised to have family members present. So she knew something serious was about to unfold. At that consultation, Eilish was shocked to learn she had ovarian cancer. She was also surprised, because she had mistakenly thought ovarian cancer only affected much older women.

The worry now was that it could spread to other parts of her body. "Mr Boyd sent my biopsy to America, where they assessed my cancer to be Stage 1, Grade 2," she says. "The oncology team advised the removal of my other ovary, and chemotherapy. That would have meant I couldn't have children, and I'd be plunged into menopause at just 27 years of age. That was really tough on Anthony and me, as we both wanted children."

Eilish was admitted to the Mater Private and prepared for surgery. She was already gowned with a line in her arm, ready to be anaesthetised, when Mr Boyd brought unbelievably good news. He had asked colleagues in Australia to review her case, and just that morning, he'd been advised not to remove the second ovary, but rather to take a 'wait and see' approach.

In the meantime, another biopsy was done using keyhole surgery, and when, some time later, Eilish was given the thumbs-up, they began to try for a baby.

"We felt complete and utter relief," she remembers. "We'd had to agree to all that other stuff [removal of the second ovary] because that was the right thing to do at the time. Now, the possibilities for us were suddenly endless. We were free to live the lives we had always wanted, and it was all thanks to Mr Bill Boyd."

Within a year of her first surgery, Eilish gave birth to baby Finn. And, just 16 months later, their daughter, River, was born. "We're nerds," she admits. "River Song is a character in Doctor Who. We liked the name, but said we couldn't call a child that. However, when our daughter was born in under 45 minutes, without pain relief, I knew that name was right for her. There was just no holding her back."

Eilish says this whole traumatic experience solidified her relationship with Anthony. "We'd only been together two years when this all started," she says. "He was so good, so patient, so supportive, and such a good provider when I had to give up work, that I had no doubt, once we'd come through all this together, that he was definitely the one for me."

Eilish continues to thrive. She used to have check-ups every four months, but now she only needs to see Mr Boyd once a year. In the meantime, she is loving every day with her very special family.

The Marie Keating Foundation has a range of support services for anyone affected by cancer. For more information, see mariekeating.ie

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