Sunday 19 May 2019

Daffodil Day: Irish teenager who went to doctor with sinus infection finds out he had head and neck cancer

Diagnosed with a life-threatening illness at a young age, Alex Meehan talks to patients about how they navigate the normal rites of passage

Jonathon Noonan (20) says exams are not as important as they seem after having cancer. Photo: Liam Burke Press 22
Jonathon Noonan (20) says exams are not as important as they seem after having cancer. Photo: Liam Burke Press 22 newsdesk

Every three minutes, someone in Ireland gets a cancer diagnosis. And while nobody wants to be told that they have this disease, for young people in particular, the news is especially unwelcome.

People in their late teens and early 20s are in the prime of their lives. They're at an age when they should be finding out who they are and deciding what they want to do with their future, not staring into the face of a potentially lethal disease.

When Jonathon Noonan (20) from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, went to the doctor in March 2011, he had what he thought was a sinus infection. A course of antibiotics seemed to clear it up, but the next month it returned, and again the following month. Then he started to lose weight.

"I was training a lot that summer with my rugby and hurling teams, so I put the weight loss down to that. But as the summer passed, I felt more tired and by August I had lost my appetite," he says.

By September, he'd been to his GP 12 times - despite not having been there at all since the age of three - but in the end, it was a lump on his neck that alerted a dentist that something else was behind Jonathon's ill health.

In October, it was discovered he had two growths in his head - one behind the nose and one on his neck - and a biopsy confirmed he had nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare kind of head and neck cancer.

"It was scary to be told you were sick. I always thought cancer was an old person's disease. I know others with it now, but at the time the only other young person I'd heard of with it was very young. I didn't know any other teenagers with it."

He started treatment for his cancer immediately but then discovered that, like 5pc of the world's population, he is allergic to fleurouracil, a common chemotherapy drug. "I ended up losing a stone and a half in 10 days and landed in ICU for a week," he says.

After an initial round of treatment of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the doctors thought Jonathon was in the clear. However, he relapsed and had to have a second round of treatment the following year.

Like any teenager, Jonathon had a busy life and ambitions for his future when he was told he had cancer, and while he says he wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, he's also philosophical about it now.

"The diagnosis changed my life. I used to play hurling and rugby as my main hobbies and I wasn't allowed to do that anymore. I was so sick and had to take it easy. It also affected school - I missed a lot in the first year I had it," he says.

"It was also difficult at first to tell people who knew me what had happened. People were a little scared of it because they didn't know anything about it. But ultimately people were really nice about it and went to a lot of trouble for me. They did a lot of fundraising and I was really touched by that."

According to Jonathon, the hardest part of the experience was feeling that the world was moving on without him. It was as if someone had pressed the pause button on his life.

"My friends were in school, advancing in their studies and lives, while I was stuck in the hospital, staying still. I am a positive person, but I had to make an effort to make sure that this didn't slow me down."

He has now been in remission for two years and continues to visit his doctor for check-ups every three months. As to what the experience has taught him, he believes he now has a better handle on what's important in life and what's not.

"I think it's important not to sweat the small stuff, exam stress for example. It's not as important as it seems," he says.

This is something that 19-year-old Cavan teenager Chloe Fitzgerald agrees with.

"Cancer teaches you how important it is to stay positive in your life. It's obviously awful to be told you have cancer, but you can also learn a lot from the people around you. I met some amazing people as result of my illness," she says.

Chloe was an active 16-year-old when she started to experience stomach pains. An x-ray showed a large grey area over her hip and the diagnosis when it arrived was indefinite spindle cell sarcoma, a rare kind of cancer that can develop in the bone or soft tissue.

"Half my hip was basically missing. The tumour was so big it had taken over the whole left area of my pelvic bone. I got an awful shock. I didn't think any of it was real and I was very scared," she says.

Like Jonathon, there was no indication what had caused Chloe's tumour or where the cancer had come from.

"I felt seriously unlucky. My big question to all the doctors was 'why does this have to happen to me?', and of course there's just no answer. It could happen to anyone," she says.

Chloe has managed to juggle having significant surgery, doing the Leaving Cert and applying for college all in the space of a few short years.

Today, she is three years in remission and is studying 3D graphics and design. Her advice for anyone in the same situation she was in is to stay positive.

"Try your best to move on. People around you can be enormously supportive. The support, back-up and friendship that Canteen Ireland gave me and my family, for example, has been absolutely invaluable," she says. "I can't emphasise enough how important the organisation was to me."

While statistics on childhood and teenage cancer aren't broken down for Ireland, they are believed to mirror rates across Europe, and show that cancer is the leading cause of natural death in the 16 to 24 age group, with approximately 30pc of fatalities coming from haematological malignancies, or cancer of the blood.

"Although recent studies show that child and older adult cancers have seen a large increase in survival rates, the same unfortunately cannot be says for adolescent and young adult cancers and this has led to an increased focus in the oncology community on the unique needs of this population," says Professor Owen Smith CBE, Consultant Paediatric Haematologist at Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin.

"This lack of survival improvement amongst these age groups may be caused by a number of factors. For example, chemotherapy is metabolised differently during puberty due to hormone influences and there is, in general, poor medication adherence and compliance and low clinical trial enrolment in these age groups."

He adds: "But there are also complex psychological factors at play with young adults that really need to be taken into account to get the best results."

See or text 'Daff' to 50300 to donate €4

Canteen Ireland is a nationwide support group for young people who have or have had cancer. More information can be found online at or through the Irish Cancer Society.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life