'It was grim at times and the cancer took so much out of me, but I wouldn't change a thing... it's made me the person I am today'
Research from Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI reveals that three out of four patients with blood cancer now survive. Karen Ireland talks to one survivor about her long journey with the disease and why she refuses to turn back the clock.
It is a strange thing for someone who has had cancer to say they wouldn’t change a thing but Eloise Mullen (31), who is from Fermanagh and now lives in Belfast, says her journey has made her the person she is today.
The home economics teacher at Fort Hill School in Lisburn says: “Cancer turned my life upside down and inside out, but I learnt so much about myself and became such a confident and different person because of it that I wouldn’t change a single thing about my journey.”
Eloise recalls the start of her journey in September 2011.
“I had been out that summer with a local charity called Kind Fund helping teenagers and building homes in Kenya,” she says.
“When I came home and went back to school I found I was tired all the time.
“As soon as I came home from school I would have gone to sleep and I was sleeping all weekend. It got to the stage I was too tired to make the journey home to Fermanagh to see my family, so I just stayed in Belfast and slept.”
Before Christmas, Eloise says she noticed a swollen gland on her neck so she decided to go to the doctor to see what was going on.
“I didn’t really have any symptoms and it is difficult to explain to someone just how tired you are, but I was completely wiped out,” she says.
Following tests, the doctors referred her to the hospital as they couldn’t find out what was going on and all the tests were inconclusive.
“By March, I was having lots of different tests and everything was coming back normal,” she says. “They then decided to do a biopsy of the swollen gland.
“Eventually, I was taken into a room and told I had Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was just 26 years old and I had no idea what this meant.
“I told the doctor to write the name down so I could tell my family, as I wasn’t really taking things in.
“It wasn’t until he mentioned referring me to the cancer centre that it clicked with me that I had cancer as he kept referring to it as a disease.
“I was completely devastated and gobsmacked. A friend was with me at the time which was good, as I was normally very independent and went to all my appointments on my own.
“I remember phoning my family with the news no parents ever want to hear. My family were brilliant and all rallied round me.
“My brother Brian basically just said — Delta Goodrem had that and she survived so you can get through this.”
Eloise admits she is a fighter by nature and she called on all her reserves to take the news on board and decide to battle the cancer and win.
“I decided I was strong enough to research it on the internet and when I did I found there were really good survival rates, so that helped me stay positive,” she says.
She then made the journey home to be with her family and have her chemo treatment at home.
“I was very lucky as I was suitable for chemo at home and the nurse came out and administered it in my mum and dad’s house,” she says.
“I started at the beginning of May for 12 weeks with intervals. I would have the chemo and then be wiped out for a week — then I would just be starting to come around when it was time to have the chemo again.
“I am not going to lie — it was a very difficult time. I was very sick and the fatigue was like nothing I can explain. It was a very difficult journey. I had to go to Belfast every other week to see if I was fit for chemo.
“My parents — Christine and Seamus — along with Brian and my sister Julianne were fantastic. They really looked after me and I didn’t have to worry about anything — they took care of everything.”
Eloise reveals that at the six-week marker her body was showing no signs of the cancer but, just to be sure, she had to complete the 12-week course.
“I went into those last six weeks very begrudgingly as I knew what was ahead and I just wanted it to be over but at the same time I know they needed to be doubly sure all the cancerous cells were being killed off.”
In total Eloise was off work for two years, but as she explains, her colleagues were incredibly supportive throughout her treatment.
“Work was fantastic — they just told me to come back when I was built up. It took a long time — a lot longer than I thought it would but I was just so tired all the time, I was also forgetful and not able to organise myself so I knew I wasn’t ready for work,” she says.
“I just saw my job at the time as concentrating on getting better and slowly day by day I got energy back. I was positive and everyone around me was positive, so that helped.
“I finally returned to my job in June 2014, two years after my journey began.
“The principal was excellent and she suggested I go part-time to start with, so I worked a Monday, slept on a Tuesday, worked a Wednesday and slept on Thursday and then worked on Friday before resting all weekend.
“I was still very tired but this was manageable for me at the time. Also as home economics is very practical work, all the time, they changed my timetable, so I was working with special needs — something I found I had a real passion for.
“That’s not a job I would ever have considered in the past, but I found I loved it and it was so rewarding I still work partly with special needs now.”
Eloise reveals that at the start of her journey she didn’t want the help or support of any charity, feeling she could do it on her own with the support of her family.
“I found my social skills were starting to deplete as I wasn’t seeing and interacting with people apart from my family. As a teacher I rely on these skills, so I started looking at what various charities offered,” she says.
“Macmillan were fantastic and I did a ‘fatigue and coping with it’ course with them. Macmillan also suggested I start a gentle exercise programme to combat the tiredness.
“I started off with gentle walks and then I started to jog and did Jog Belfast, where I met an amazing group of people all with very different stories.
“Through interacting with the charities, I met people who understood what I was going through and I made lifelong friends. I still jog as it helps with the fatigue which I still suffer from but I now know my boundaries and not to push myself too hard or I suffer for it the next day. I manage it.”
Such is Eloise’s enthusiasm for life that she has taken to independent travel — she takes her back-pack and off she goes. She recently completed the last part of the Camino de Santiago in the north of Spain.
“Everyone I met had a story to tell and it was a huge part of my journey. My journey over the last five years has been remarkable,” she says.
“I have met some amazing people and done some wonderful things which would never have happened if I had not had cancer.
“It was grim in places and it took so much out of me, but I wouldn’t change a thing as it has made me the person I am today and I have so much to be thankful for. I am so thankful for the research that has gone on by Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI that has helped people like me have a chance.
“If I can help just one person by sharing my story then it will be worthwhile.”
Helping to find a cure for blood cancers
Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI is the only local charity entirely dedicated to researching treatments and a cure for blood cancers.
For further information please visit www.leukaemiaandlymphomani.org or to donate to this worthy cause, visit www.justgiving.com/nilrf to help reduce the number of empty chairs created by blood cancer.