No one is immune to the effects of cancer and while many forms of the disease are treated with successful outcomes, the survival rates of lung cancer are just 20pc.
And while smoking is the biggest risk factor responsible for most cases of the disease, it can and does affect people who don't smoke and never have done.
However, like all cancers, if detected early, the chance of surviving this potentially lethal form of the disease is much higher.
This is exactly what happened to Karen McDonnell, who at 54 years of age has not only survived lung cancer once, but developed and survived it a second time, despite never having smoked in her life.
The mother of three - Mikaela (25), William (23) and Aisling (16) - says her symptoms were so mild that it was just instinct which prompted her to get them checked out.
"I was first diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2010," she says. "I had no cough, no shortness of breath and no pain - but I did have an overwhelming feeling that there was something wrong in the left side of my chest. I also had a slight discomfort in my left lower ribs.
"So I went to my GP who thankfully listened to my concerns and sent me for a chest x-ray. I was told that I would have the results in five working days but I knew in my heart that I would have it sooner because if they saw something on that x-ray, I knew they would act immediately."
Karen had the x-ray on a Friday morning and by Monday afternoon she was beginning to relax as she hadn't heard from the hospital. But her relief was short lived as she soon received a call from her GP who delivered the devastating news she knew was coming.
"By 5pm on the Monday, I was starting to allow myself to think that all my fears were just imagined, but within the hour, my GP rang," she recalls. "I was still in my office at work when she told me that a lesion had been found in my left lung. As a paediatric oncology nurse I knew that this can often mean a tumour - but I wasn't shocked to hear this and my first thought was about what needed to be done to deal with this.
"I had a great sense of urgency about getting it dealt with because I knew the sooner I was diagnosed, the sooner I could have treatment and ultimately, the better my chances of surviving."
She was immediately referred to the 'Rapid Access Lung clinic' in St James' Hospital following a CT scan at her local hospital.
"I attended that scan on the following Friday, which was Good Friday," recalls Karen, who is married to Liam. "We always spend the Easter weekend at home in Mayo with my family and that year was no different except that we headed off on the Saturday morning with the disc from
my CT scan concealed in the glove box, ready to bring straight to my appointment with the respiratory consultant in St James' on the following Tuesday.
"That weekend is firmly etched in my memory as one of mixed emotions. I thoroughly enjoyed the time with my family, sharing the fun of the egg hunt with the kids and of course my mother's wonderful cooking, but in the back of my mind, and perhaps the reason I was appreciating every moment, was the thought that if the news was bad on Tuesday, there was the possibility that this could be my last Easter.
"I didn't share my thoughts or even my health news as I didn't want to spoil the time for everyone with them worrying unnecessarily. But I was creating all sorts of stories in my own head - even though lung cancer did not feature at all as I was not aware that someone who never smoked could get it.
"I had no knowledge of adult cancers but I did know that a lot of cancers metastasise or spread to the lungs and so the picture I was creating was that I had cancer somewhere else and that the lesion in my lung was a secondary tumour."
Thankfully the news was somewhat better as the cancer in her lungs was primary, despite the fact that she had never smoked. She had been prepared to hear that the cancer had begun elsewhere and had spread to her lungs but was delighted that as a primary cancer which had been caught early, it would be curable with surgery.
The next few weeks went by in a blur of scans, tests and surgery and Karen couldn't wait to get on with living her life.
"Everything went well, thank God, but it was major surgery and the surgeon said I wouldn't be able to do anything for six weeks," she recalls. "I went back to work after nine months which in hindsight was too soon, but I was keen to get on with things."
But while surgery was a success, the result was short lived as three years later, the unthinkable happened and Karen was diagnosed with lung cancer for a second time.
"In 2013, I had an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong and once again convinced myself that it was to do with my brain or somewhere else," she says. "I had so much fear that the cancer was coming back and was always at the GP with any pain or tweak.
"So although I had no symptoms related to my lungs, over that Christmas, I had lost weight without trying and while other people were giving out about putting on weight, I had the opposite problem.
"I got in touch with my oncologist who told me to come in for an x-ray which revealed that I had lung cancer for the second time. I remember being relieved but actually more upset than the first time. I realised that as I had dealt with it before, I could do it again, but I was still very scared".
The second surgery removed the remainder of her left lung but this time her recovery was easier as she felt positive about survival and says while we mustn't live our lives in fear of becoming ill, being aware of any changes in our bodies is vital.
"I was determined to give myself the time I needed to get better, so took more time off work and that helped both physically and psychologically," she says. "After the second surgery, the anxiety went with it and now I don't worry so much as I feel I would know if something was wrong.
"I don't want people to be paranoid, but I believe it is really important that people respond to their bodies and their instincts and go for regular check-ups. The longer you leave it, it the less possibility of a cure - so the sooner you get checked, the better your chances."
Earlier this year, the Kildare woman celebrated 10 years since the first awful news was delivered and says she still feels immensely grateful for her family and indeed, her life.
"I was 44 when I was first diagnosed with lung cancer and in April this year, when we were all housebound together due to the Covid lockdown, my family held a lovely celebration to mark this momentous 10th anniversary," she says.
"As a family, we have much to celebrate as my husband, Liam also celebrated the important five-year milestone of being cancer-free in January of this year, having had prostate cancer in 2014. So we feel very blessed to be here with our children, to have celebrated all the normal childhood events of communions, confirmations, exams, college and graduations. And we hope to live through many more happy family events with them.
"But all of these blessings come from the fact that we were both lucky enough to be diagnosed early and cured by surgery alone."
Bernie Carter, senior oncology nurse with the Marie Keating Foundation, agrees and says the survival rates of lung cancer are much higher when detected early.
"Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all the common cancers, showing just 20pc survival five years after diagnosis," she says. "This is due to the fact that many lung cancer diagnoses are detected in later stages because many assume the symptoms are just cold and flu related and don't get them checked. So it's essential to speak to your GP without delay."
⬤ Lung cancer is the fourth most common cancer affecting both men and women in Ireland.
⬤Almost 2,750 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, and more people die from lung cancer in Ireland than any other cancer type.
⬤Smoking cigarettes is the single biggest risk factor and is responsible for 90pc of all cases.
⬤Symptoms that have been linked to lung cancer are:
- A persistent cough for more than three weeks
- A sudden change in a cough you've had for a long time
- Breathlessness (Shortness of breath)
- Coughing up blood-stained phlegm
- Chest pain that is often worse when breathing or coughing
- Unexplained weight loss
Health & Living