Saturday 20 January 2018

Young mum takes radical approach to tackle cancer

Actor Stephen Rea, centre, at the launch of the Caring for Caroline Trust.
Actor Stephen Rea, centre, at the launch of the Caring for Caroline Trust.

John Manning

A SKERRIES mother of two is submitting herself to an exhausting series of experimental treatments in the US in her battle against an extremely rare form of cancer, thought to be unique in Ireland.

Caroline Fagan Heyenga (32) is battling an extremely rare form of cancer called Metastatic Follicular Thyroid Carcinoma and a trust has been set up in her name to pursue new ground-breaking treatments for this and other rare forms of cancer in the United States and Europe.

The trust has been set up on the back of exhaustive research by Caroline's family, whose dedication to the cause is helping to develop new and innovative cancer treatments in a battle against the disease that Caroline's brother, Richard, calls a 'medical terrorist'.

Richard spoke to the Fingal Independent and said that the plan of action for the family now was to get Caroline enrolled in a study in a hospital in the US or Europe where she would have the chance, not only to try experimental treatments for her own condition but also 'lead the way' for other people in the same position and contribute to the medical knowledge of her cancer and other rare forms of the disease.

'We know these new and advanced trial drugs will be suitable for Caroline because we have done a lot of genetic research into her condition in 2013 with the help of a laboratory in Boston,' Richard said.

Caroline is now back and forth to the United States on a regular basis, undergoing treatment and trials at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York under Dr. Sherman and at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore under Dr. Ball – two doctors that are world class in the field and known for their innovation in treating cancers.

The treatment is of course, very expensive and may yet require Caroline to move permanently to the US or to a European base, and while her family have rallied around and funded the treatment, they now need some help – not just for Caroline but for people suffering all kinds of rare cancers here in Ireland and elsewhere.

To that end, the Caring for Caroline Medical Trust has been set up and received its official launch yesterday (Monday) at Newbridge House in Donabate, with the charity's patron, actor and Donabate resident, Stephen Rea, helping the appeal to get off the ground.

Richard said that the constant back and forth for treatment in the US has become 'physically and mentally exhausting' for his brave sister, who despite the challenges facing her on a daily basis, tackles each day with a smile.

He said: 'She is in good spirits and really, she always is. I have to say, her mental attitude was tested last year because of all the walls and barriers we came up against but she is a very, very driven person and she has defied everything the medical textbooks say about her cancer.

'She has two beautiful girls and a great husband and there's a bigger picture here and her girl's need her.'

The kind of trials that Caroline has been and will be involved in centre on the use of 'inhibitors' that Richard believes will eventually replace chemotherapy as the treatment of choice for most cancers.

He said: 'An inhibitor is basically a drug that lives with your cancer and suffocates the small blood vessels that feed the cancer.' He said the drugs are a more 'targeted' treatment than chemotherapy, distinguishing between good and bad cells in a way that chemotherapy cannot.

Does the Skerries woman ever feel like a guinea pig, we asked her brother. Richard replies: 'Maybe we do feel like guinea pigs sometimes but that doesn't factor into our thinking any more.

'We are blessed to have Dr. Ray McDermott working on Caroline's case in Ireland who is a big promoter of new trials and drugs and we are blessed to have Dr. Ball and Dr. Sherman in John Hopkins and Memorial Sloan Kettering involved.'

The family are also hugely grateful for the care Caroline has received at St Vincent's Hospital.

You can find out more about Caroline's battle and learn how to donate to the trust at

Fingal Independent

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