Coping with cancer as a teen: ‘I was envious of my friends who didn’t have to fear cancer or worry it was going to come back’
An Irish woman who was diagnosed with a rare cancer when she was a teenager revealed that the long term impacts of coping with such a serious illness are often overlooked.
Roisin Whelan was 19 when she was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a very rare cancer affecting the nose and mouth, but revealed the effects of her treatment continue to impact her life more than ten years after chemotherapy and radiation therapy were completed.
“People always talk about how hard cancer treatment is and of course it’s very tough. But they don’t think about the long-term effects of having this kind of illness,” said Roisin.
“You kind of bulldoze yourself through treatment and it’s only when you come out the other side you think ‘What have I just been through?’
“It changed my life. For instance it damaged my salivary glands and now I have difficulty making saliva so it’s affected my eating and my taste. There was damage to my thyroid as well. Because I’ve had an issue with saliva, my teeth were damaged and they all had to be replaced,” she said.
Although Roisin (30) continues to live with the physical repercussions of her treatment on a daily basis, her experience with cancer also filtered into her personal life throughout her twenties where she admits feeling a little bit lost.
“For two or three years after my treatment I wasn’t able to just be a normal girl in her twenties.
“I was exhausted and I wasn’t able to party as late as my friends.
“The opportunities and choices in front of me had changed.
"I had dropped out of my Media Studies course and I was moving from to job to job feeling a little bit lost. I did a beauty therapy course but I didn’t feel like that was for me either. I was limited in my opportunities as well. For example, I could never go away for a summer and travel as I always had appointments with oncologists, endocrinologists... you name it I’ve seen them.
“I was quite unsettled and I realised I wasn’t happy. I didn’t realised how much cancer had changed me.
“I always had this fear, too, that it would come back. I was so envious of my friends who didn’t have to fear cancer or worry it was going to come back.” she said.
Roisin, who is from Monkstown in Dublin, admits that she has finally found her feet more than eleven years after her life-changing diagnosis. After years of lending a helpful hand to those coping with serious illnesses, Roisin was inspired to turn it into a career.
“Over the years, people would come to me for advice or others would get put me in touch to talk to other people who were going through cancer and other things and I realised that I enjoyed being able to help them.
“You think when you’re going through it something as difficult as cancer it is the last thing you’d want to speak about as a career but I found it quite therapeutic for myself.
“I went back to college then to study Counselling and Psychotherapy for four years and I’ve been qualified for a year now. I’m beginning to find my feet. I help people with cancer but also so many other things.
“When I was sick I longed for someone to talk to and I feel like this is so important for people, particularly those going through an illness during a period of transition like I was at 19.
“I wasn’t a child but I wasn’t an adult yet either,” she said.
This week, Roisin is supporting Mouth Cancer Awareness Day, a cause which is obviously very close to heart. The psychologist revealed that campaigns like this are important as she felt she was very “naive” about cancer when she was first diagnosed.
“At the time I was diagnosed I was 19 and all my friends were travelling and getting ready to go inter-railing.
“I had actually booked a ticket to Greece and I remember having a fight with my mum and dad because I had asked the doctor if there was any way I could delay my treatment for a few weeks and go.
“At the time there wasn’t so much in the news about cancer and I was a little bit naive which is why campaigns and awareness days are so important.
“Funnily enough it never came into my head that I was going to die. I think because I was so young at the time I felt somewhat invincible,” she said.