Mary Healy

‘The sun shines brighter every day now’

An ovarian cancer survivor who received her chemotherapy treatment at the oncology unit in Tullamore hospital has spoken out about her health battle in a bid to make women more aware of the warning signs of the disease.

In advance of World Ovarian Cancer Day on Sunday next, May 8, former public health nurse and midwife, Mary Healy, admitted that “the sun shines brighter every day now” as she continues to recuperate after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early 2020.

Ireland has the highest rate of ovarian cancer in Europe, with over 75% of all patients presenting with late-stage disease, according to the Irish Network for Gynaecology Oncology. They added that this is partly due to “the vagueness of symptoms and the similarity with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.”

Despite working for 44 years in the area of nursing and midwifery, Mary Healy says she never dreamed she had ovarian cancer when she began to experience bowel and urinary problems in late 2019.

“I had lost my mother that year and I was working full-time so there was a lot going on,” said the mother of two grown-up daughters, “so it was November before I went to see the GP.”

She was referred for a colonoscopy and sent to see a specialist in urinary problems, but neither appointment rang any alarm bells. However, in early 2020 she began to experience vaginal bleeding so she was referred to Mullingar hospital for a D&C after which she was told she had polyps, and that no malignancy had been detected.

“Then Covid hit and suddenly everyone working in the health sector was catapulted into a completely unknown world, so we were all run off our feet,” she says, with Mary being initially seconded to Longford to set up a Covid assessment unit.

An inflamed finger brought her back to her GP again, and she credits her survival to the fact that her doctor asked her if her vaginal bleeding had stopped, “It hadn’t, but I was so busy in my job that it was the last thing on my mind to be honest,” she admits.

She was referred for a hysterectomy after which her consultant, Dr Gannon, told her he had found “an ovarian growth” but added that it didn’t look suspicious. Nevertheless, a specific blood test, CA 125, which is used to screen for ovarian cancer, revealed that Mary Healy had a cancer antigen level of 1,800 instead of the normal level of less than 30!

She was then sent to St James Hospital in Dublin for radical surgery which saw her other ovary being removed as well as all the lymph nodes in her abdomen. “The surgery lasted for eight hours and I had eight incisions in my stomach,” she said, “and I was very, very sick after it.”

Four weeks later she went to Tullamore Hospital for six sessions of chemotherapy treatment. “The sessions were spaced apart every three weeks and I would get a couple of good days after each session before the nausea and sickness kicked in,” she says, adding that it was “a very tough time.”

Despite her tough health battle, Mary Healy said the issue that was foremost in her mind when she heard she had to have chemotherapy was the thought of losing her hair. “My hair was always my crowning glory and I must have spent thousands on it over the years,” she laughed, “but it turned out to be the least important thing in the end, so that was a little lesson in that for me.”

On day 12 of her chemotherapy treatment, her husband, Dr Pearse Murphy, who is the retired Head of Nursing and Health Science in TUS Athlone, shaved her head after her hair “began to fall out in clumps”, she says.

Her husband, who is also a qualified nurse, looked after Mary after her surgery and during her recuperation, and her sister-in-law, Bernie, came in every day to change her surgical dressings. She adds that her two adult daughters, Sinéad and Ciara – both of whom are social workers - also helped out with her care when the could.

Mary Healy, who lives in Ballinderry, outside Mullingar, admits that Covid cast “a long shadow” over all her cancer treatment as she was unable to receive any visitors while she was in hospital and also during her recuperation period, and she was also unable to get a scan before her first surgery. “It was very difficult,” she recalled, “but we got through it and everybody I encountered was so kind and compassionate, I got the best of care despite Covid.”

A visit to Miriam Moylette in the Wig Clinic in Athlone, where she was fitted with a wig, meant that “every day was a good hair day” for Mary Healy while she was suffering with hair loss, and she is full of praise for the “caring and compassionate” service she received.

She is also full of praise for the staff on the Oncology Ward in Tullamore hospital, which she still attends for regular blood tests and follow-up scans. “The staff there are just brilliant,” she says, “every single one of them.”

Mary’s ovarian cancer was at Stage One when it was detected, and she regards herself as “very lucky” and feels that her late mother was looking after her. However, she adds that “four out of every five women” who are diagnosed with the disease would not know the symptoms to look out for, and she hopes that by telling her own story she can make other women more aware of the warning signs.

Even though it has taken a full year for Mary Healy to battle her ovarian cancer, she says she is now “in great form” and has resumed normal activities like playing a bit of golf, cycling and working as a volunteer in a local charity shop. “I try to do something every day, now that Covid has lifted and I can get out and about again” she says.

“I really appreciate my life, and the sun shines brighter every day now, so I am very lucky,” she said.

World Ovarian Cancer Day takes place this Sunday, May 8, and the key to the campaign is knowing the signs and getting help at an early stage if experiencing any of the following symptoms for three weeks or more (BEAT campaign)

• Bloating that is persistent and doesn’t come and go

• Eating less and feeling full more quickly

• Abdominal and pelvic pain you feel most days

• Toilet changes in urination or bowel habits

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can often be confused with irritable bowel syndrome, but this rarely presents for the first time in a woman over 50.

Facts and figures

*Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death in gynaecological cancers.

* Ireland has the highest death rate in Europe from ovarian cancer.

* Over 75% of patients present with late-stage disease, partly due to the vagueness of symptoms and the similarity with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

* In Ireland, over 400 women present with ovarian cancer and most cases occur in women over 50 years of age.