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Fighting back from 'mother of all surgeries'

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Michael Healy doing what he loves. Photo by Tony McElhinney

Michael Healy doing what he loves. Photo by Tony McElhinney

Michael Healy doing what he loves. Photo by Tony McElhinney

Lauragh man Michael Healy went through what's known as 'The Mother of All Surgeries' - and that's by no means an excessive title.

In 2011, at age 53, he was diagnosed with 'PMP' - cancer of the appendix or Pseudomyxoma Peritonei - and in 2012 underwent 13-hour surgery in Basingstoke the UK.

This involved the removal of the right side of his colon, spleen, appendix, gall bladder, umbilicus, and greater and lesser omentum. His liver, kidneys, and peritoneum were stripped.

This was followed by the administration of chemotherapy - heated to 42 degrees - into his abdomen for an hour and a half.

It sounds and was gruesome, and the recovery process was draining from both a physical and mental point of view. But the surgery was life-saving, and Michael's story was ultimately a positive one.

He is today retired and lives in Bantry with his wife, Claire, who - along with their son and daughter, Killian and Aisling - was the main bedrock on his journey back to himself.

And it was support that was most certainly needed.

"The thing about it is that there are no obvious symptoms," Michael told The Kerryman. "It's somewhat silent.

"Some types of appendix tumors can cause pseudomyxoma peritonei or PMP, which occurs when the appendix ruptures and the tumour cells leak into the abdominal cavity.

"The tumor cells secrete a protein gel called mucin that can build up in the abdominal cavity and continue to spread. Without treatment, its build-up can lead to problems with the digestive system, intestinal blockages and eventually death, if left untreated.

"What led to me getting my diagnosis is that I was getting a slight pain in my stomach, on and off. I went to a doctor about it, and that was the start of what led to me getting my diagnosis."

Michael went for a series of tests that eventually led to the discovery that he had PMP. In turn, in late 2011, he met a consultant who nailed down plans for January 2012 surgery.

While it wasn't until surgery took place that the full extent of the damage could be determined, it turned out that, while the spread was large, the damage caused would be classified as 'low grade'.

He underwent follow-on chemotherapy for four days, 24-hour monitoring in intensive care for five days. He went over three weeks in hospital two and a half weeks without food.

Michael knew "zilch" about the condition beforehand and had remained in denial of his illness. It wasn't until after the operation that the enormity of what he'd been through hit him both physically and mentally.

"The major stumbling block was chronic fatigue," he said. "Even something as simple as getting up and getting dressed was a massive struggle. It's very hard to describe to someone who hasn't been through it.

"Mentally, it was overwhelming, and I went through phases of emotions, whether anger or what have you. You wonder if your lot is to be able to walk to the gate and back and nothing more for the rest of your life.

"I struggled with the fact it was a very rare form of cancer and surgery, so I was alone in that I couldn't talk to anyone who had been through what I was going through.

"I feel rather fortunate that I was diagnosed correctly in Cork and referred to a specialist centre in Basingstoke, where I had surgery performed by world-renowned surgeons. And while recovery was difficult, I am delighted that I can lead a normal life again."

Michael pushed on a little day by day, increasing his daily walking bit by bit. Five months after surgery, he started attending the gym and returned to work for Eircom at around the same time. Six months after that, he took part in a 6k run.

He has since taken part in numerous 10k runs and more than 100 5k parkruns, including in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, teaming up with Sonia O'Sullivan for some of them.

He has also raised funds for and awareness of cancer research, a role he continues to relish to this day.

"After what happened, I met other survivors," he said. "With a few of them, I got a tour of Breakthrough Cancer Research labs in Cork, and we were blown away by the work they were doing."

Aside from past fund-raising, he has also teamed up with two other survivors and the Hairy Baby t-shirt company. Together they have designed t-shirts that will be launched on World Cancer Day, February 4, coinciding with the opening of Breakthrough Cancer Research's 'The Shop that Nearly Wasn't', the world's first shop stocked and staffed by cancer survivors. It will remain open for one week in Dublin's 'The Library Project'.

Michael's t-shirt will be available at the shop and online at www.breakthroughcancerresearch.ie, and he is unequivocal on the importance of funding research.

"Research is key," he said. "In the case of rarer forms of cancer, I suppose less money and less research is thrown at them than more common cancers, but we'd like to see some change in that.

"We need research to be done on those rare cancers, and raising funds can allow that to happen. The more research we do, the better the outcomes will be."

Kerryman