Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Surviving Lymphoma

Today is World Lymphoma Awareness Day. Munier Abdalla and Vivienne Mooney talk about their experience of surviving this debilitating illness — and celebrating life after their treatment

Munier Abdalla says his experience of lymphoma has made him a bit spiritual
Munier Abdalla says his experience of lymphoma has made him a bit spiritual

You could call it tragic irony. Munier Abdalla (28), one of Downtown Radio’s news reporters, used to run marathons and triathlons to raise money for cancer charities.

“You do what you can, and it was in memory of a woman who looked after me when I lived in London and died of ovarian cancer.” But when Munier ran the Belfast 2006 marathon, he knew something was badly wrong. “I was a very fit guy and could do a marathon in under four hours, but this time I came in at five hours, 50 minutes and was struggling by the end.” He saw a GP who thought he needed time off.

Lymphoma can be hard to spot, and Munier’s story is one of missed diagnosis and a weary round of trips to different doctors before he was finally, a year later, told he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 2B. He says: “I’m really not in the blame game and the experience does turn you into a kind of hypochondriac. But I saw around six doctors, locums, emergency on-calls with different symptoms. I even went to hospital once and they put ‘Referred by doctor???’ as they clearly thought I was lying. If only they’d referred me to a specialist at the start, treatment could have started sooner.”

He kept returning to the surgery because his symptoms were increasingly severe. As he recalls: “Between May and the end of the year, I had a number of issues — night sweats, an itch and I lost about one and a half stone. My arms were sticks and I was struggling to lift easy 10-kilo weights. I had no stamina at all.”

Munier called the Malone Clinic, deciding to opt for private treatment, and his mother, a nursing sister, asked his GP to refer him to a specialist. “I got an appointment in 10 days and they immediately did a biopsy of some enlarged lumps on the left-hand side of my neck.”

The tests confirmed he had cancer. Oddly, Munier remembers feeling quite chirpy afterwards. “I hadn’t read up on it then, but I soon did and found out the survival rates were good with early detection.” The treatment that followed, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, was, as he puts it, “punishing”. At one point, Munier was vomiting blood and would hear his mother throwing up as she emptied the bucket. “It must have been terrible for her.”

But he eventually came through and was encouraged by meeting a distant family member, aged 65, who had also suffered from lymphoma. Munier’s doctors now give him a good chance of leading a normal life — “and getting on with it”.

He’s optimistic and just glad to be back covering 9/11 and other stories. How does it feel? “Well, I’m still bluffing after five years. No, it’s cool. You need routine and structure, and I guess I did miss work at times — the camaraderie, hearing a story on radio and feeling it should be done this way ... But I didn’t think about it in the depths of having treatment.”

Now Munier is building up his strength, getting rid of the weight and “man boobs” acquired while taking steroids, and thinking about the big questions. “Like anybody who has faced their mortality, I’ve thought about what it’s all about. It makes you a bit spiritual.” As he notes, his mother’s Christian, his Egyptian father Muslim, so he has a choice of faiths. “I’m building up to running 10 miles and am in the pool, down the gym. I’m getting there.”

‘I was very angry, I felt everyone else knew’

Many cancer survivors might choose to celebrate life by going on a restful holiday, or perhaps giving up work. Few would take the notion to climb Kilimanjaro, just for fun. Yet that's exactly what Vivienne Mooney did.

Vivienne is no mountaineer. Her only other forays into hill walking were in Wicklow but she says she “loves a challenge”.

It's just as well because Vivienne has already faced many challenges, being diagnosed with lymphoma at the tender age of 16. Now 50, she says that little was known about the illness in the 1970s.

Vivienne had typical symptoms — weight loss, tiredness which “crept in” when she was doing her Inter Cert. “I'd fall asleep standing up no matter how much rest I got,” she recalls. There was also a symptomatic itch, she says, “all over my body”.

There were, however, none of the lumps associated with the cancer, which invades the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are filters which clean the lymphatic fluid; removing bacteria and viruses. The ‘Know Your Nodes' campaign which is being publicised encourages people to examine lumps and bumps which may be an early sign of the disease.

Vivienne says her treatment was “terrible”, partly because she was never told of the diagnosis. She says this was an effort at protection by her parents and doctors, so she only learned of her condition reading a newspaper article on the bus. “I only knew then I had cancer,” she says. “I was very angry, I felt everyone else knew.”

Having missed so much school, Vivienne decided not to return and married at 18. “The wedding was a distraction really and I had great fun showing off my engagement ring while getting chemo”.

Thirty-one years later the cancer is gone, and the husband remains, along with three children which Vivienne acknowledges makes her “very lucky”, given she also had a hysterectomy at the age of 28.

Vivienne is now the picture of health and climbing Africa's highest peak was the pinnacle of her achievements.

Raising awareness is also close to Vivienne's heart and she is active in the Lymphoma Association to promote this.

There are two distinct types: Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's.

Both types often begin with a painless swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or chest. The treatment of lymphoma is usually very successful.

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