Thursday 14 December 2017

'My husband was one of the least likely people to get cancer'

Sinead Quinn, her husband Ronan Clarke and their three girls had their whole lives ahead of them - until Ronan was diagnosed with a rare and inoperable cancer.

Sinead Quinn
Sinead Quinn
Ronan Clarke

Arlene Harris

As soon as Sinead Quinn clapped eyes on Ronan Clarke she knew there was something special about him. From the same area of rural Mayo as herself, she invited him to her grad and despite going their separate ways for several years afterwards; the couple reunited, married and had three beautiful daughters.

But little did either of them know that at the age of 41, Ronan, a former presenter of Ear to the Ground, would lose his life to a rare form of cancer.

Now eight months later, the young widow doesn't want his death to have been in vain and is urging people to become more aware of the lesser-known forms of this killer disease.

"Ronan was a very fit and healthy man," she says. "He didn't smoke, rarely drank, was always involved in sport and visited the doctor if he ever felt unwell.

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"He had no health issues apart from a slight back pain but as it was intermittent and he never needed painkillers, he wasn't concerned about it.

"But one afternoon in May 2013, he pulled up his shirt and asked me to look at his back. I said it didn't look symmetrical as one side of his spine was slightly different to the other. He had felt a lump there earlier in the day and although it wasn't painful, we both agreed that he should contact the doctor."

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Ronan, who retrained as a teacher after leaving his post on RTE, rang the GP and was given an appointment straight away. Then despite having no outwardly obvious symptoms, the father-of-three was referred immediately to a specialist.

"The doctor suspected that there was something seriously wrong," says Sinead. "This was a total bolt out-of-the-blue as he seemed so healthy - he wasn't tired or feeling unwell and the pain in his back hadn't really bothered him, so we were both shocked when the doctor said he needed to see a consultant."

The couple, who married in 2008, had three daughters under three (Aoibhinn, Saorla and Meabh), so life was already pretty hectic. But family and friends rallied around to help look after the girls while Ronan underwent a series of tests and treatments in Dublin.

"There was a suspicion from the outset that Ronan was suffering from something sinister and after seeing a general surgeon, he was referred to a hospital in Dublin because it was essential for him to be treated by a specialist in spinal surgery," says Sinead.

"A month after seeing our local doctor, he was diagnosed with a sarcoma. This was a terrible blow and we were all in complete shock. The doctors spoke very seriously and there was nothing light-hearted or hopeful about their prognosis but I frequently had to remind myself that this was our reality.

"Ronan was, obviously, also in shock but was staying as positive as he could. In the midst of this the girls still had to be looked after and were in their usual busy form.

"At this stage our eldest Aoibhinn had just celebrated her third birthday, Saorla was 20 months and Meabh was three months. I was breastfeeding her so she stayed with me all the time but the other two were looked after by family, who were fantastic throughout."

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Over the course of the year following his diagnosis, Ronan spent most of his time in hospital in Dublin as doctors did all they could to eradicate his cancer. Sinead divided each week between keeping vigil at his bedside and looking after her little girls in Mayo.

It was an extremely difficult time for both of them, but she says, they would have done anything to try and destroy the cancer which would eventually take his life.

"Once Ronan saw the specialist in Beaumont Hospital, it was agreed that he should have surgery to remove the tumour," says Sinead. "His doctor had initially hoped to do a course of radiotherapy before the operation but this was reversed as the tumour was progressing very quickly.

"He had a number of significant surgeries in Beaumont, which involved both neurosurgeons and plastic surgeons. And also underwent a course of radiotherapy in St. Luke's hospital after he had recovered from the operation. But because of the speed in which the cancer was progressing, the tumour had recurred before his radiotherapy began."

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So raw is her grief, Sinead is reluctant to talk about the months which followed and eventually led to her husband's death. But she doesn't hesitate to acknowledge the courage he displayed throughout.

"Ronan was extremely brave as he faced into the enormous challenge he knew was ahead of him," she says. "He never complained and put every ounce of determination into getting better.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that he wouldn't survive - even when we were told his tumour had recurred and we knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was inoperable, we still didn't give up hope.

"While we were both completely devastated, Ronan underwent radiotherapy in the hope that it would help control the disease. However, despite the treatment, the tumour continued to grow and in February 2014 Ronan moved back to Mayo to spend as much time as he could with myself, our girls and his family. He died early in the morning of May 29 2014."

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With their three daughters to look after, Sinead is undoubtedly still in shock but is doing her best to stay strong.

"Under the circumstances, we are doing ok," she says. "But it is very early days and sometimes I have to remind myself that he is really gone. The girls have lost their Daddy and nothing will ever bring him back. I can't put our loss into words and there are days when it is hard for me to function.

"But I try to make sure life is happy and fun for them. We are blessed with extremely good support from our family and friends and our local community has really rallied around.

"However at the end of the day, there is no getting away from the fact that this is really really tough and not at all what we thought the future had in store for us."

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Despite, or perhaps because of, her grief, the mother-of-three is putting all of her energy into trying to raise awareness about rare types of cancer like sarcoma.

"Ronan was one of the least likely people to get cancer," she says. "He had an exemplary lifestyle, never smoked, didn't drink much, had an exceptionally good diet and was really fit. We were both very sensible about our health and were aware of all the symptoms of the more common cancers - but sarcoma was not something we had ever thought about.

"I am so angry that he has been taken from us like this and I am holding cancer to account. I want justice for the way it took Ronan's life and the only way I can do this is by alerting people of the need to be aware that there are over 200 different types of cancer.

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"If anything positive were to come out of Ronan's passing it would be that no one else would suffer like he did and this is why I would encourage people to be really aware of their bodies.

"If there is anything unexplained, persistent or unusual they should talk to their doctor about it immediately as it might just save their life."

For more information on sarcomas visitirishsarcomagroup.ie.

Anyone concerned about cancer can contact the Irish Cancer Society's National Cancer Helpline Freefone 1800 200 700. The Irish Cancer Society's Daffodil Day takes place on Friday, March 27 2015.

Visit cancer.ie for more details.

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