I thought someone had hit me, but it was my bones collapsing


At the age of 43, I was felled suddenly by a cancer I had never heard of. To call it a shock is an understatement

I had just got off the train at Connolly Station, heading into my office in Dublin city centre, on a typical Friday morning in February 2011 and was walking along the platform when I felt a heavy thump on my back. I thought somebody had hit me but when I looked around, there was nobody there.

What I didn’t realise was the thump I had felt was caused by the bones in my back collapsing as a result of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer I had never even heard of.

I hadn’t felt any different travelling into work that morning, but the force of that sudden bang on my back was so strong, it knocked me forward and I stumbled a bit. I felt dizzy so I sat down for five minutes before heading into work.

However, the pain in my back started to get worse so I left work and went to see a physiotherapist at the Leinster Clinic in Maynooth on my way home. The physio thought it sounded like a slipped disc but the pain was in the wrong place so he referred me for a scan.

Injection for pain
A doctor in the clinic gave me an injection for pain and I went back to work the following Monday. I had my scan that Thursday and was sent straight over to orthopaedic surgeon Dr Patrick O’Neill in the Mater Private Hospital. I was getting a bit worried at this stage as I knew something was wrong.

Dr O’Neill explained that the scan showed that the bones in my back were starting to collapse and he needed to find out why. I was brought back in the following week for tests and diagnosed with multiple myeloma. At this stage, I was transferred to the care of Dr Peter O’Gorman, consultant haematologist at the Mater, and admitted to hospital to undergo radiation and chemotherapy.

I was put on a combination of three drugs, one of which was a new drug that had been clinically trialled in Ireland. When the pain in my back started getting worse, the chemo was stopped while I had surgery.

During a five-hour operation, I had rods put into my back to hold it up and the surgeon told my wife afterwards that if I had waited much longer, I would have lost all the power in my legs.
Stem cell transplant
After surgery, I went back onto chemo as an outpatient and had eight cycles up to the end of that August. In October, I had my stem cells harvested in preparation for a stem cell transplant. I was given growth hormone in the Mater to overproduce stem cells, which were harvested and frozen. I then underwent high-dose chemotherapy to kill off all the stem cells in my bone marrow.

This was a heavy and unpleasant treatment and once my stem cell levels were down to zero, I was sent over to St James’s Hospital for the transplant. I was hooked up to a machine and given my frozen stem cells back before being sent back to the Mater to recover.

I spent three to four weeks in an isolation ward until my levels were right and after that, I was still as weak as a kitten. It took a couple of months before I was back to normal or “the new normal”.

Since then, I have been on maintenance treatment. I take thalidomide tablets and aspirin every day. Thalidomide (which caused birth defects in thousands of children in the 1960s) has a bad name but it is an effective treatment for some cancers.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was only 43 and to say it came as a shock is an understatement. It was much harder for my wife though. I only had to deal with the cancer and how to beat it.

She had to face the new world of multiple myeloma coming down the line and still keep the old world going.

Our three children were aged five, seven and nine at the time and she was stuck trying to deal with everything – getting them out to school in the morning, explaining what was wrong with me and dealing with my illness.

Scare stories
When I was diagnosed first, we had never heard of multiple myeloma and had no idea what it was. We started looking at Dr Google and found all sorts of scare stories. We then got in contact with patient groups like Ireland Multiple Myeloma, which really helped.

My doctors and nurses were very good at explaining things but it’s great to talk to people who have been through the same illness and come out the other side.

Today, I’m in remission and getting on with my life. I have to go into hospital every month for a bone strengthener and have my bloods and levels checked. I could be on maintenance treatment for another couple of years; it all depends how each individual reacts to the treatment.

I’m back at work four days and expect to go to five in the next month. I’m back to reasonably full physical health although with my back, I am restricted in some ways – for example I can’t do heavy lifting. Other than that, I am able to live life fairly normally.

Once you get a diagnosis like that though, it changes your outlook on life. You value things in a different way going forward and, in that respect, my life has definitely changed.

In conversation with Michelle McDonagh. Published in The Irish Times Health+Family, Tuesday, January 21, 2014