Home Columnists Conor Stapleton: What it’s like getting a cancer diagnosis – and why...

Conor Stapleton: What it’s like getting a cancer diagnosis – and why staying in is so vital

The last few weeks have changed our lives. We have felt scared, angry, hopeful and every emotion in between. We have put our faith in our healthcare system. We have learned how important friendship is and the value of family. We have had pause to think of our own mortality.

This language may seem hyperbolic and over-dramatic, but this pandemic has changed our world.

These acts and emotions will be familiar to many. Each day, many families receive life altering news; the good and the bad. My news came five months ago, in the form of a text from my doctor’s secretary:

“Hi Conor. Dr. ______ is going to phone you this evening. Will you be home at 6.30?”

My heart sunk. Two weeks previously, I had a mole removed from my back and thought little else of it.

Busy with my medical school placement, the daily Luas commute and the drama of college-life, my dermatology visit was fast becoming a distant memory. However, this text rang alarm bells in my head. My limited clinical knowledge told me; doctors don’t make sure you are at home to call without good reason.

That evening I was informed the mole which had been removed had turned out to be a melanoma. Again, my limited clinical knowledge chimed in; “Not good!” The next morning, I found myself seated in front of a plastic surgeon, discussing the next steps.

In 24 hours, I had transitioned from being the nervous medical student perched in the corner of the consultation room to being the nervous patient perched opposite the consultant.

Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, developing from the cells which give colour our skin, the melanocytes.

When caught early, it has an excellent prognosis. When caught late, the prognosis is more uncertain. After two surgeries and a PET scan, I found out that my melanoma was more the latter than the former.

Thankfully, my diagnosis happened to coincide with a boom in promising treatment options for the disease. I am currently five sessions into a planned 26-session immunotherapy treatment schedule.

Immunotherapy is a new form of cancer therapy which uses the body’s own immune system to fight any malignant or cancerous cells. It has the added bonus of not causing as many side effects as traditional chemotherapy, and to date, has not caused me any issues.

I cannot say this whole experience has been negative. The support of friends and family has been immense, and it has forced me to reconnect with friendships that may have drifted in recent times.

I have witnessed the marvellous work that is done in our hospital and experienced the care that all health care professionals give to their patients. There has been lows, but accompanied by highs of a greater appreciation of the everyday or “an gnáthrud” as one leaving cert Irish prose would name it.

The reason why I am sharing my story can be broken down into three parts.

Firstly, look after your skin and wear sun cream. Melanoma is largely caused by sun damage and so our best chance in fighting melanoma is in prevention. You do not have to be a sun worshipper to develop this disease.

Secondly, when I was first diagnosed, I took great solace in reading about the experience of others; the good and the bad. The more we talk about these things, the more people feel they are not alone and are comfortable in sharing their story.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly during this pandemic, all of us currently on immunotherapy are “cocooning.”

We need everyone’s help to ensure that all these efforts are not in vain. By staying in and not meeting up with friends, you are protecting us and all those who Covid-19 poses a greater threat.

The last year has changed my life. I have felt scared, angry, hopeful and every emotion in between.

I have put my faith in our healthcare system. I have learned how important friendship is and the value of family. I have had pause to think of my own mortality.

I have hope that this too shall pass.

SEE ALSO – Conor Stapleton: What the most recent Covid-19 research is telling us