When Katie Boylan (38) suddenly fell ill in 2015, she reasoned that it was a bad case of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) brought on by the Christmas party season that she’d been enjoying.
She’d been experiencing IBS for years, and had grown used to flare-ups when she ate foods that didn’t agree with her. A change in bowel habits wasn’t uncommon for her, so she never suspected that her illness that December would be something more sinister than IBS.
“I thought it was a really bad flare up of that – too much booze over Christmas – I didn’t think it was anything sinister. I would have had quite bad bloating and diarrhoea before. If I ate bad foods, they wouldn’t agree with me at all, like if I ate a sandwich with bread that contained gluten.”
But she said: “I woke up and I couldn’t stop getting sick… I didn’t have bad bleeding. I just had a change in bowel habits. Like a really, really bad episode of IBS.”
Doctors put Katie on a course of antibiotics, and to investigate further they sent her for a colonoscopy. One month later, Katie, aged just 35, was told that she had a 15cm tumour on her bowel.
“Even my GP was shocked and the doctors in Vincent’s, they thought I might have ulcerative colitis, they couldn’t believe that I had such a big tumour.”
“A really nice man delivered the news. I looked around and my mum was crying. I was in shock. A girl I knew had died of cancer six months before that so I thought I was going to die, so that was the first question I asked: ‘am I going to die?’”
“The doctor was great and he was saying it was stage two to three, that the odds were with me, but it was really worrying.”
Before starting her treatment, Katie had her eggs frozen to protect her chances of having a family in the future. A course of chemotherapy followed, and then a period of chemotherapy and radiation together.
But scans revealed that her cancer had spread to her liver, and she needed surgery to remove both. It was also discovered that she had a hole in her bladder.
She explained: “In one of the operations or during the radiation, they’re not sure which, something caused a hole in my bladder, which I understand is quite common with radiation on the pelvic area. That was fixed in August.”
She added: “The tumour perforated my bowel so they gave me a colostomy bag to try and let it heal. I didn’t even know what a colostomy bag was, I was only 35, no one I know had a colostomy bag, all the literature from hospital about colostomy bags, the people on it had grey hair.”
Now one year post treatment, Katie is grateful that the colostomy bag helped her body to heal, and she still calls it by a nickname. Eventually, her body will have healed enough for it to be removed.
“I joke that before I got Freddie, I thought a bag for life was something you do your shopping in. It will be reversed, they just want to give me more time, my pelvic floor is a bit weak, they don’t want to reverse the bag, and have that not healed.”
“[In the beginning] I did find it really tough, I was really afraid that people would see it, I didn’t tell people for a long time, but after a while I told people, and it turns out loads of people I know, know of someone who has one… Now I talk about it to a stranger.”
During her treatment, and the nine-hour surgery to remove the tumours when Katie was weak and her weight had dropped to six stone, she says she tried to practise positive thinking.
“I just tried to stay positive all the time, I blocked out the idea that I was going to die. It was only after the big operation to remove the tumour, the doctor said it was one of the worst cases he’d ever seen, and I just burst out laughing, because I’d blocked it all out to try and get better.”
“A very good friend of mine had cancer years ago and she was great for getting me to stay positive and to visualise sitting in the consultant’s office getting good news. Every evening I found something good that happened that day – It could be something stupid like I’d bought a chocolate bar, or something really big, like you got good news.”
However, she added: “I had those dark days as well. I moved home six months before I was diagnosed because I wanted to buy. My parents were unbelieveable, and my cousin Julie, my friend who had cancer before, and all my friends were amazing. I was the first out of the group to get diagnosed, and unfortunately 1 in 2 people will get a cancer diagnosis. I joke that everyone should keep hanging out with me because I’m the 1 in 2.”
As Daffodil Day approaches this week, Katie advises anyone who has just received a cancer diagnosis to seek help from their support network, and to try positive thinking.
She added: “I never thought I’d be diagnosed with cancer in particular in my thirties but there is hope if you are diagnosed with cancer and you will get through it like I did.”
“I’m just so thankful that it was caught early and that I survived.”
The Irish Cancer Society’s annual Daffodil Day fundraiser appeal takes place on Friday. For more information log on to cancer.ie