A WEST BELFAST father is appealing to all local GAA clubs, soccer clubs, boxing clubs and secondary schools to register to become stem cell donors.
Coolnasilla man Sean Smyth is speaking out as his 24-year-old daughter Eimear bravely battles Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. Eimear was only 22 and living in Leeds when she was first diagnosed two years ago.
Speaking to the Andersonstown News Eimear said: “I was loving life, working full time in MAC make-up then Victoria’s Secret, it was in 2016 that I was first diagnosed. We had gone to Thailand in May and when I came home I started to develop some symptoms.
“I thought I had really bad tonsilitis, my glands were massive, I had a horrible cough, I was in and out of work and feeling dreadful. I went to the doctors and they said it was glandular fever, and that it would take weeks for the lumps to go down and it was normal to be so fatigued.
“I went back to work, but I still had a horrible cough and what looked like boulders on my neck and down the side.”
Eimear continued: “It was August and things weren’t getting any better, I went back and saw a new doctor, she had just started on the Friday and was fresh into her job. I told her about my symptoms, lumps in my neck, night sweats, rashes, itchiness, loss of weight and appetite. Straight away she mentioned Hodgkins lymphoma.”
Eimear’s doctor ordered emergency blood tests and an ultrasound where it was confirmed that she had blood cancer.
“When I went to the ultra sound the nurse was very cheery, but within a few minutes she changed and I knew something was wrong. She went and got the surgeon who rescanned me and told me there were multiple lymphnodes in my neck and they needed to do an emergency biopsy.
“This all happened on the Friday and between that and Monday I developed septicemia, the doctor called an ambulance. Up until this point I had more or less kept it to myself but once I was brought into hospital I had to ring my parents and tell them I had cancer.”
Eimear’s dad Sean said: “She was crying down the phone saying ‘I have cancer.’ I said ‘Of course you don’t have cancer, catch yourself on, you’re 22, you’re fit and you’re healthy, there’s no way.”
Doctors were further alarmed to discover a 13cm tumour in Eimear’s chest and multiple tumors in her neck.
Eimear said: “I had to get my head round that, then prepare myself for chemo. There and then I thought I was going to die, they told me it was the best cancer to get as the success rate was the best with this one.
“I got chemo once a fortnight on a Thursday, I would be back on my feet by the Tuesday of the following week then I’d be back in again on the Thursday, this was my life for six months.”
Eimear was given the all clear on April 11, 2017. However, in July last year she was devastated to discover that the cancer had come back. “I started feeling unwell again and I had to go through the whole process of getting doctors to listen to me all over again, I couldn’t believe it.
“We then discovered that I had relapsed. It was at this point that I decided I had to come home to Belfast, I had to get chemo 23 hours a day five days a week, every three weeks and then a stem cell transplant. Chemo made me so sick, I collapsed three times, it just makes you so weak. I never spoke during my treatment, I would go home and get straight under the covers for about four days.”
Eimear self-donated for her stem cell transplant – this meant there was no worry of the cells being rejected. In march Eimear received a phone call to say her transplant was a success and that she was cancer-free.
Eimear continued: “I had to get surgery on a lump on my neck, they took it out and tested it then two weeks later at an appointment I was told the cancer was back, I wasn’t shocked, I just went into planning mode. So we are now trying to work out what’s going on, why does it come back? The chemo is working in that it’s putting me into remission, but not for long enough.”
One of the side effects of chemo can be loss of hearing and Eimear now has to wear a hearing aid. As well as this she needs another stem cell transplant and the search is on for a donor – and young men between the ages of 16 and 30 are the ideal candidates, hence her dad’s appeal to local sporting groups.
Eimear’s dad Sean said: “We are appealing to the West Belfast sporting fraternity. How many GAA clubs, soccer clubs, boxing clubs and secondary schools have we got here? I know Gort na Mona are holding an Anthony Nolan registration event on Thursday between 7pm and 9pm where young men can go and get tested to see if they’re a match. I’m asking every Gaelic club to follow suit and do the same. Let us come out and explain the process, one thing potential donors need to know though is that if you are a match you will be kept on the register for the rest of your life. We will go into schools and clubs and talk to people about becoming donors, we would love for clubs and schools to contact us and the Anthony Nolan organisation will go out and give a show and tell. This isn’t just for Eimear this is for everyone who needs it.”
Amy Bartlett from the Anthony Nolan organisation said: “We want to raise awareness and dispel the myths around stem cell donation. Initially it’s a cheek swab, then if you are a match it’s a similar procedure to donating blood, a few injections then your stem cells are collected. Donors tell us the side effects are feeling tired and a bit fluey, that’s it. Women can also donate but the chances of a match are so much more likely from young men, young men make up only 16 per cent of our register, but they provide an astonishing 55 per cent of all donations.
Eimear added: “Since I’ve been sick people keep asking me if there’s anything they can do. Well, yes, there is – they can get registered with the Anthony Nolan foundation.”
For further information about stem cell donation contact Amy Bartlett from the Anthony Nolan Foundation on 07900730757 or amy.bartlett@ anthonynolan.org or call Ryan McGeough on 07540 705695.