Brave mum Kylee battling thyroid cancer is alerting others how to spot the signs
It was only last month that young Belfast mum, Kylee Murphy, had her happy, secure world turned upside down with an out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis.
The 29-year-old mum-of-one is in the middle of treatment and still very much coming to terms with the shock news, yet incredibly, she is thinking of others.
Kylee had found a lump on her neck in February, which she thought was a swollen gland, heralding the onset of a cold.
Not for a single moment did she suspect it was anything serious and only mentioned it in passing to her GP while on a routine appointment with her two-year-old-son, Theo.
Even after tests, it still never entered Kylee's head that the lump could be anything sinister, so she was totally unprepared when told on June 3 that she had papillary thyroid cancer.
Not only had she never heard of thyroid cancer before, but was surprised to learn that it mainly strikes young women under the age of 45. The shock of the news has prompted Kylee to speak out in the hope of creating awareness.
Speaking from her Belfast home, just days after major surgery to remove the cancer in her neck, it is hard to believe she is so very ill as she passionately pleads for other young women to be aware of the symptoms.
She says: "My wee cousin, Amy, had a coffee morning for Macmillan Cancer last September and I baked buns and went along to support her.
"Never in a million years did I think that nine months later, I would be on the phone to Macmillan myself looking for support.
"People tend to think that cancer only affects older people, or people who smoke or drink too much, or who are obese - but no one is immune. I don't drink much and I don't smoke, and I'm only 29 - and I never expected this."
Kylee, who works in the City Hospital as a dialysis assistant, is married to Conor (30), a marketing manager with the Golf Channel.
The couple have been married just four years and have one son, Theo, who is two.
Kylee says having to break the news that she had cancer to her husband was one of the hardest of the many hurdles she has faced in the past few weeks, since her diagnosis.
She is only now beginning to get over a 10-hour operation, during which the cancer was successfully removed, but which has left her with a scar across her neck and collar bone.
She now faces a rare form of cancer treatment, called "radioactive iodine", which will mean she will not be able to have any contact at all with little Theo for almost three weeks. It is a prospect she can barely contemplate at the moment.
To protect Theo, she and Conor agreed not to let him visit her in hospital during the seven days she spent there after her operation, and that was an agonising time for her.
"I had never been separated from Theo before and that was the worst few days of my life. I really missed my son, but I didn't think that the hospital was the right place for him. For the first few days, I couldn't move and was in pain, with lots of drains and drips, and I didn't want him to see me like that," she says.
Kylee had no concerns when she felt a small lump on her neck in February. She thought she had swollen glands and was expecting to develop a cold.
The lump, which was under her ear and the size of a marble, was still there when she had to take her son to a GP appointment three weeks later. It was only then she decided to mention it to the doctor.
The doctor took some blood tests, which came back clear, then referred Kylee for an X-ray, which also showed nothing up.
She was then sent for an ultrasound scan and, even at this point, Kylee had no concerns - the idea that she could have cancer never once entered her head.
She adds: "It was only after the ultrasound, when they said they were putting a needle in to do a biopsy, that, for the first time, I thought there was maybe something to worry about. But I didn't let it stress me."
A few days later, she was called to the Ear, Nose and Throat department at the City Hospital, where she was told that, while the pathology results had not come back, she should prepare herself that it might not be something straight forward.
Kylee explains: "The doctor told me not to panic, but I couldn't help it. I just thought 'what do I do, where do I go? I'm only 29, this is awful. It will be a mistake', I just didn't understand what was happening. I went home and spent the night on the internet and completely terrified myself reading about throat and mouth cancers.
"It didn't even enter my head I had thyroid cancer, I didn't even know it existed."
Kylee got a call to come to her GP surgery the next morning, where she was told the news.
She insisted that her husband and son stay outside in a play park while she went in alone.
"It was such a shock, but I didn't react the way I thought I would," says Kylee.
"I thought I would scream and cry and ask 'why me?', but I was very calm.
"I was in a bit of a daze as I walked out of the doctors and into the park. I just stood and watched my husband happily pushing my son on the swing and I thought 'How do I tell you I have cancer? We are only married four years and Theo is only two and I am going to ruin your whole world'. That was the most difficult part for me, telling Conor."
She also had to break the news to her parents, who had just got back from holiday, the next day and they were naturally devastated.
She was referred to ear, nose and throat consultant Myles Black at the Royal Victoria Hospital, who rang and offered her an early appointment to discuss her diagnosis and help put her mind at ease.
"Meeting Miles was a real turning point," adds Kylee. "He took so much time to explain everything to me and he said that, while I had a rough road ahead with surgery and treatment, that he was going for a cure.
"He said he would do everything to fix it. I went into his office in the depths of despair and came out walking on air and for the first time thinking 'I can do this, it is going to be fine'. He was wonderful and very reassuring."
Kylee underwent 10 hours of surgery at the Royal on June 30 to remove her thyroid when it was also discovered that the cancer had spread to the other side of her neck.
She spent a week in hospital after her operation.
"I have a scar going from each ear across my collar bone which was difficult for me to deal with. I am not vain but I just kept thinking 'I am only 29 and I am disfigured now', and that was difficult.
"I'm now focusing on getting my independence back," says Kylee. "My husband travels a lot with work and I'm used to being here on my own with Theo. After having surgery it was difficult not being able to drive or shower myself but I am lucky that I have a very supportive family who have made it bearable."
Kylee now faces radioactive iodine treatment in the City Hospital in August to kill off any remaining cancer cells.
She will be in isolation for the first three days after the treatment with no human contact afterwards.
There will be another two agonising weeks for Kylee when she is not allowed any contact with her son or any other child under the age of five due to the radioactivity.
She says: "That's going to be hard as I am a social person and I enjoy a lot of interaction. To be left alone like that with no physical contact with anyone is a worry.
"I have no idea how I am going to cope with not seeing Theo for two weeks, and I'm really apprehensive about it as it is feels like stepping into another unknown. "
It will be six months before Kylee will know if the treatment is a success - and if not, she will have to undergo it again. She remains optimistic, though, and is getting through with the help of her family and the Macmillan Cancer charity, which she says has been a real lifeline.
While she contemplates what lies ahead, she feels compelled to warn other young women about thyroid cancer. And as the annual Macmillan Coffee Morning approaches again this September she can't quite believe the significance the event which she supported last year has now taken on for her.
She says: "If I can warn one person to go to the doctor immediately if they find a lump in their neck then that will make it worthwhile for me.
"You don't hesitate if you find a lump in your breast but most people finding a small lump on their neck will, like I did, assume it is nothing. I had never heard of thyroid cancer or knew that it affected young women and I waited three weeks before I spoke to my doctor - and even then, it was only because I was there with my son.
"Macmillan has a centre in the City Hospital. I work there and I didn't even know about it, and I am sure other people don't know about it.
"Sometimes it is great to talk to someone who is not emotionally involved, and be able to tell them that you are afraid that you are going to die. It is easier to say those things to a stranger and it is wonderful to have them on the end of the phone; they have been a great support.
"I've done my fair share of crying about it and being angry about it. Theo is the best possible reason to get up in the morning.
"I think if he wasn't here it would be very easy to go to bed and feel awful about it, but he is my reason to get better."