In October 2015, Fiona McGrath was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer when she was 32 years old. The diagnosis came as a shock, but today she is enjoying life with her husband Donal and daughters Neasa and Sadie. This year Fiona is marking her 5th year in remission and she wants to share her story to raise awareness and hope for others facing their own diagnosis. This is Fiona’s story.
“My diagnosis came as a complete shock. I was 32, in good health and at the time had no noticeable symptoms that gave me any indication that something was wrong. I went to the GP with what I thought was a swollen gland, and whilst my bloods were normal something just didn’t feel right. I had a follow-up appointment a few weeks later and my doctor was worried about a lump on my neck and wanted to investigate further. In quite a short space of time, tests confirmed I had Thyroid cancer.
“Hearing the diagnosis was absolutely devastating. Looking back at old photos now, I can see that the lump on my neck had been there for a while, but it was just something I didn’t notice. My diagnosis had a good outlook, but I was terrified about what lay ahead. It was hugely overwhelming, and I did struggle in the beginning to talk about it. It’s a club that no one wants to join. Thankfully, I have a great support network of family and close friends and that really helped me. I also knew that the treatment and care available to me was excellent. Having worked in the Pharmaceutical Industry for over 10 years, and in my role at that time working within Oncology, I knew the wonderful team in the Belfast Cancer Centre and across cancer services, and I have seen first-hand the incredible work they do. Whilst I never imagined for a second at such a young age that I would be impacted by cancer myself, knowing that I was in safe hands was really comforting.
“I had surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital to remove my thyroid gland. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, but thankfully what was positive was removed during surgery. There was also suspected spread to my liver, but that was eradicated by radioactive iodine treatment which I started after my surgery.
“Radioactive iodine treatment, which is a type of internal radiotherapy, is the most common and effective way of treating Thyroid cancer. I was admitted to the Cancer Centre to start my treatment, which involved taking a radioactive tablet. The treatment itself makes you radioactive and whilst this leaves your body over a few days, I had to follow strict safety measures. I was in isolation, in a single room with no human contact for 5 days. That was incredibly difficult. I knew it was short term and that it was part of the process, but it was a lonely and worrying time and I missed my family so much, particularly my daughter Neasa who was just 1 year old at the time. When I left hospital, I had to take further precautions, including staying isolated in my parents house. This was to ensure that all of the radioactivity from my treatment had left my system before I returned home. I was so thankful that I had their support, but it was still really difficult as I tried to keep my distance from them as much as possible.
“In a strange twist of fate, the wife of my husband’s friend had also been diagnosed with Thyroid cancer a few months before me, and she was a wonderful source of support. In particular, she was able to share some really practical advice that got me through those early difficult days, and how to cope with the isolation in hospital. Practical tips like wearing old clothes during treatment, (one of the ways the toxins leave your body is through sweat, so I had to leave behind the clothes I wore in hospital due to possible contamination), knowing that wearing shirts would be more comfortable after surgery as raising your arm was difficult, which foods to eat that were iodine and salt free, and what I should expect when faced with hours in an MRI scanner. Not to mention the emotional support having lived and breathed the same diagnosis and now going through a similar treatment plan. That advice and support was invaluable and I would love to be able to pass that on to someone else.
“Thankfully my treatment was successful and at my six month review in July 2016, I was given the all clear. I still have regular check-ups, but getting to that point was an incredible relief. Since then life has returned to normal and my husband Donal and I have welcomed another daughter, Sadie to our family, something I was worried treatment might affect.
“I am now coming up to 5 years since getting the all clear and it is a real milestone. I wanted to share this particularly now, as it might give someone else hope. Whilst I can’t identify with the particular challenges and difficulties facing Cancer patients today as a result of COVID-19, I can identify with the worry and fear that I think all people feel when they are diagnosed. Throughout it all I was worried and scared, but I knew the care and support available to me was excellent and that gave me hope. Friends of the Cancer Centre plays such a vital role in this care and its work makes a real and meaningful difference to patients and families. The charity has been hit hard by the pandemic, with people unable to raise money as they normally would. However the charity is still here, working hard to support patients and families across Northern Ireland.”