Monday 23 April 2018

Cancer survivor (21): 'When you're diagnosed, people tell you you're strong - but you don't have any other choice'

Cancer survivor Sarah O'Neill. Picture: Smile for Sarah/Facebook
Cancer survivor Sarah O'Neill. Picture: Smile for Sarah/Facebook

Payu Tiwari

A cancer survivor who was diagnosed at the age of 17 spoke about her struggles with the illness and her fears of her fertility.

Speaking on Sunday with Miriam, Sarah O’Neill, now 21, emphasised the importance of having more open conversations about cancer.

When she was first diagnosed with a tumour the “size of a small watermelon,” she said that her immediate reaction was to switch into the fight or flight mode.

"The first thing I said was, 'am I gonna lose my hair?' When they said yes, I said, 'you know what? I don’t even care'. I think when you’re in that moment, your fight or flight kicks in. So when people say ‘you’re so strong’, you don’t really have any other choice. It’s what you do to get through it.”

For support, Sarah’s mother shaved her head along with her.

"I think she did it cause there was nothing else she could do," she said. 

Before her last bout of treatment, she started a Facebook page titled Smile for Sarah with the intention of providing support to other young people who were diagnosed with cancer.

Fertility was a big concern for her, but by the time she got diagnosed, she didn’t have time to freeze her eggs. “I think you need about six to eight weeks. If the time was there I could have, but I didn’t. So I went on an injection that they didn’t really know would work or not. Eventually, my cycle stopped. But now it’s almost gone back to normal. ”

Sara Quigley, another cancer survivor who was diagnosed 20 years ago, said her experience with the treatment was “horrendous,” and that she wasn’t told about the effects of the treatment on her ability to have children. “I didn’t fully understand the implications of the treatment,” she explained.

As a result, she had several issues with her first pregnancy. About 20 weeks in, she was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism, which can have serious implications."

"I was having what I thought were pregnancy symptoms. When I went to the clinic, turns out it was early cardiac failure, which can occur because of the treatment." she said.

She said that if she had known this before, she would have had check ups and consulted a cardiologist.

Speaking about the trauma of the treatment, Sara said that there is a need for “emotional support in a educational way.”

"There was wonderful support by nurses and doctors. But there was no support for me emotionally, so I found that experience very traumatic. Procedures around radiotherapy are difficult. For someone who was very young, it was very difficult. Now I get anxious to go back to hospitals.”

The survivors appreciated the work of CanCare4LIving, a cancer support group, saying that ‘it was very useful,’ and advocated the importance of speaking out about cancer.

“Nothing is done when you don’t say anything," Sara added.

"So we’re trying to speak out...Say what needs to be done."

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