Oonagh McArdle had always been a healthy, fit, non-smoker so when she began experiencing “strange” symptoms in 2019, she was only mildly concerned, but decided to visit her doctor just in case. Several months and tests later, she received the biggest shock of her life when it was discovered that the strange feeling in her legs and recurring bouts of tiredness were in fact caused by non-small cell lung cancer, which, in her case, is incurable.
In early 2019, I began to experience some mild and vague symptoms which included an odd tingling sensation in my legs and occasionally feeling more tired than usual,” says the 50-year-old. “I thought I might have had some sort of deficiency, so being someone who is a bit of a problem solver, I decided to get it sorted.
“I went to my doctor who did a few tests. Nothing showed up, so she suggested I went on HRT for a month as perhaps the feeling of being a bit off was associated with the menopause. After several months of going over and back, I was sent for an MRI as they thought that perhaps I could have multiple sclerosis. As with the other tests, the results showed everything was normal, so the doctor then began to look at my family history. After telling her that my mother had bowel cancer and my father had died of lung cancer, I was referred for a colonoscopy and a chest X-ray — the colonoscopy revealed nothing, but something showed up on the X-ray and I was put on antibiotics as it was thought that I might have had some sort of chest infection.”
The antibiotics didn’t make any difference to Oonagh’s symptoms, so she was given a second course, before finally being referred for a chest CT scan, which revealed the worst possible news.
“In March 2020, I was sent for a CT scan of my chest,” says the university lecturer. “The scan was at 11am and at 1pm, I got a call from my GP surgery asking me to go in to see the doctor within the hour. It was at this point that I knew there must be something seriously wrong and I discovered I was right when she read the scan report to me, which included the words ‘very suspicious for metastatic disease’.
“My friend, Sharon, who lived in London but was from my hometown in Monaghan, had received a similar diagnosis not long before, so I had an idea there and then that it could be lung cancer, but nothing would be official until I underwent a biopsy which would give the exact diagnosis. “So I had a bronchoscopy, which involves a tube going down your throat to grab some cells, then a second one as they didn’t get enough. But it was only after I had a surgical biopsy that I asked the doctor if I could tell people that I actually had cancer as nothing had been officially said to me yet.
“He said that yes I could, and that was the first time I had a bit of a wobble as I had been very calm up to that point.” Oonagh, who lives in Galway with her partner Mick and two sons, Eoghan (22) and Ruairí (20), was diagnosed with cancer in both lungs, which was advanced and unfortunately incurable. She is currently on medication which is working well and although she has no idea what the future will hold, is determined to remain positive.
“The biopsy identified the specific nature of my cancer as being EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) positive and my treatment is targeted therapy,” she says. “This means I take an oral tablet daily which suppresses the growth of cancer cells. And the only time I felt a bit traumatised was when the oncologist told me about how this worked and the median survival rates. I didn’t really take in what she was saying other than hearing the words ‘36 months’ which made me think I was being given an expiry date. This gave me a big shock and I found that I couldn’t absorb the idea of only having three years to live. I had a difficult few weeks as I tried to get my head around it, but then I realised that she was talking about the median survival rate and that many people live well with serious cancers.
“I feel very strongly that the ‘Big C’ is a very varied ‘C’ and while I have an incurable cancer and I’m looking at death, we are all going to face it at some point. So although, unfortunately, at some stage the drugs will stop working when the cancer mutates again and I know the cancer will kill me, I don’t know when, and at the moment, I’m feeling good so I will take that. I had some very good sessions with a psychologist at Cancer Care West, which helped me to come to terms with the fact that I have to live with the uncertainty of my diagnosis and learn not to dwell on things like death.
“I feel I am coping with it all fairly calmly and pragmatically as I know that a metastatic cancer diagnosis is the beginning of facing death, however distant or imminent, and it’s important to deal with this. Sharon was a huge support to me and when she died (last November) I thought I would be in a very bad place and that I would find it very tough, but I was able to accept it and realise that this is something we will all face and that it is important not to worry about the pointless stuff we can’t do anything about.”
With her positive outlook and regular monitoring, Oonagh is enjoying life and continues to be physically active. She is also keen to “dispel the myth” that lung cancer always affects people who may not live a healthy lifestyle.
“I’m feeling very good today and feel lucky that I have good resilience to get on with things,” she says. “Despite my diagnosis, I am still very physically active. I am a member of Galway Bay Cycling Club and I’m still cycling around 100km each week and love that I am able to do that. I think cycling is great for both physical and mental health and I love being in a club for the social aspect, the coffee, and the chats.
“I feel that people have a stereotypical image of those with lung cancer and are more judgmental about it and this contributes to stigma and invisibility. Basically anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, no one deserves it and that treatment advancements mean you can live well with it, even though the future is uncertain.
“But it is uncertain for everyone, and looking at myself and Sharon, I don’t know how we ended up with the same cancer but with a diagnosis like this, you have to accept there are things you ultimately cannot change or control so there’s not much point in worrying.
“I feel quite lucky that I don’t have any regrets in life, and I don’t feel like I have a life unlived. I am living well and if I hang on long enough, there may be other drugs evolving which can help me to live longer. But for the moment, I will continue to enjoy life as much as I can.”
Oonagh is just one of the many people who are supported by the Irish Cancer Society across Ireland and this month, the charity is asking for help to support them and their families by taking on the ICS Marathon in a Month, which is proudly supported by Aldi.
“You can walk, run or jog the distance of a marathon across the month — you can do it at your own speed and in your own time,” says a spokesperson. “The beauty of it is you can choose to clock up your kilometres on the way to work, in your local park, whatever suits you — it’s your speed, your way, your Marathon in a Month.
“All funds raised will help support vital cancer services like the Irish Cancer Society Support Line on Freephone 1800 200 700, free transport to chemotherapy appointments, Daffodil Centres and remote counselling, to help with the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis.”
To register, visit cancer.ie
About non-small cell lung cancer
⬤ Most lung cancers are NSCLC, but some are linked to genetic changes (mutations) — which are not inherited. When these mutations occur, they affect the normal activity of the gene and lung cancer can develop.
⬤ Symptoms of lung cancer include:
1) Difficulty breathing;
2) A cough that doesn’t go away or a change in a long-term cough;
3) Repeated chest infections that won’t go away, even after antibiotics;
4) Feeling more tired than usual;
5) A hoarse voice;
6) Coughing up blood-stained phlegm;
7) Pain in your chest, especially when you cough or breathe in;
8) Loss of appetite/weight loss;
9) Swelling around your face and neck;
10) Difficulty swallowing
⬤ If you have any concerns, seek medical advice as soon as possible as early detection is key.
⬤ For more information visit cancer.ie or call 1800 200 700.