Thursday 18 July 2019

'I thought I had a chest infection... but I was told I had an aggressive form of cancer' - Deirdre Ruane

A couple of years ago, Deirdre Ruane was stunned when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She tells Joy Orpen that she owes her remarkable recovery to the haematology team at a Dublin hospital

Deirdre Ruane wondered was she going to die. Photo: Tony Gavin
Deirdre Ruane wondered was she going to die. Photo: Tony Gavin

Deirdre Ruane's cancer was so life-threatening, chemotherapy began within hours of her diagnosis. Yet, just one year later, she has already embarked on an ambitious challenge - to scale 12 mountains in as many months, and she is confident of success.

Deirdre (35) is the second youngest of nine siblings who grew up on a farm outside Foxford, Co Mayo. And while they did roam about in rural splendour, their chores included tending the cattle and footing turf in the bog.

Following school, Deirdre studied social care. This led her to working with children and adults with learning disabilities in a residential or day-care setting. Soon after, she spent a year in Australia. And even though she enjoyed the experience, she elected to return to Ireland.

Having registered with a health-care agency, she began working in Dublin, where she eventually met and fell in love with carpenter Simon McDonagh. So everything went well, until October 2017, when Deirdre began to feel uncomfortable.

"Lying down at night, I felt a tightness in my throat," she explains. "Then one weekend, while I was visiting family in Foxford, I lost my voice. When I went to see the local football team play a big match, I couldn't even shout." When Deirdre still hadn't recovered by Monday, she went to the doctor, who treated her for laryngitis. She then returned to Dublin, and resumed work.

Soon after, she began to experience unexplained coughing fits. "It sounded like a loud bark, and it felt like it was coming from my stomach," she recalls. Naturally, she was becoming increasingly confused by all these odd symptoms, so she arranged to have an ultrasound done, in case of a thyroid problem. But the test proved negative.

In mid-January 2018, she was busy at the gym, lifting weights above her head, when she started coughing loudly. And later, at home, she began wheezing while going up the stairs. "I sounded like a heavy smoker, even though I don't smoke," she says. "So, I went to the doctor, who thought I had a chest infection and put me on a three-day course of steroids."

When Deirdre happened to encounter the very same GP a few days later, he asked if she was feeling better. She said no, she wasn't, so he sent her to A&E at the Mater Hospital. Following an eight-hour wait, she was seen by a young doctor who sent her for an X-ray of her throat, which showed up inconsistencies. He then sent her for another X-ray, which revealed a shadow in her chest. She was told to return a couple of days later for more tests.

When Deirdre arrived at the hospital on January 18, all she had with her was a sandwich, a magazine and a willingness to wait. What she couldn't have known was that her life was about to change in the most dramatic way. Having been shown to a bed in the acute medical assessment unit, the young doctor who had initially attended her in A&E was already waiting. He suggested she arrange for someone to join her; then he stayed with her while she had a CT scan.

"After that, I had lots of tests," says Deirdre. "There were different doctors coming and going. I had another scan, and then they did a biopsy of my throat. I spent that night in the hospital. I knew whatever was going on, it wasn't good. I began to wonder if I would live or die."

The next day, her suspicions that a catastrophe was about to unfold were confirmed when she learned she was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer; it was called diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, which is the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It primarily affects white blood cells within the lymphatic system, which are crucial for fighting infections. Already, Deirdre had a large tumour in her chest. "It was close to my heart and lurking just behind the breastbone," she explains.

At the time of the diagnosis, a number of family members as well as Simon were present. "It was so surreal," says Deirdre. "Doctors are quite straight-talking once they know what's involved. I actually went into total shock, but I also wanted to be strong for mam and dad."

Given that this is such an aggressive form of cancer, a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) was inserted into her arm and threaded up and into her chest. This is a device to facilitate the intravenous delivery of chemotherapy. She was then transferred to St Vincent's, the cancer ward at the Mater Hospital.

"They knew they had to act quickly," explains Deirdre. "So two nurses stayed late to give me my first dose of chemotherapy. When I woke the next morning, I had motion sickness and a pain in my chest. There were all sorts of people in and out. Until recently, I'd known nothing about cancer; now, it was all I could think about."

Once she'd completed her initial treatment, Deirdre's life was absolutely hijacked by the disease. Every two weeks she was hospitalised for five days having chemotherapy, and in between there were check-ups and tests. The Irish Cancer Society transported her to and from the hospital, while Arc, the cancer support centre in nearby Eccles Street, gave her welcome refuge. "I used to go to Arc for a cup of tea and a chat, when I needed to get away from the hospital environment," she explains.

Deirdre finished her primary chemotherapy in May, but had to return to hospital as a day patient on several occasions for additional treatment. In August, she had a scan which showed that one-fifth of the original mass remained. Deirdre was devastated. Shortly after, this remaining mass was biopsied. And a few days later, she got the unbelievable news that this remaining mass contained no active cancer cells.

One of her most abiding memories of being in the Mater Hospital was the overwhelming desire to get away. "The nurses and doctors were absolutely outstanding," she says. "Especially Dr Michael Fay and the haematology team - they literally saved my life. But all I really wanted was to get out that door. So, I decided, once I was well, I was going to climb a mountain a month for 12 months. I wanted to enjoy the freedom, while raising funds for the cancer ward at the Mater Hospital."

Deirdre has already climbed Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo, raising thousands for the Mater cancer ward. Her intention is to have scaled Knocknarea in Co Sligo this month, while Carrauntoohil in Co Kerry is scheduled for the summer.

"If anyone wants to join me on my hikes, they're most welcome," says this feisty young woman.

For more information, see Facebook: Deirdre's 12 mountains fundraiser for the Mater Foundation

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