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The year that has given us a new life

Lisa Smyth speaks to two local people who got a second chance in 2015 after battling serious illness and overcoming the odds.

Sarah Lynas (26) is from Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim.

I was only 18 years old when I was diagnosed with cancer and I have been in and out of hospital for most of the last six years.

I was diagnosed with B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009, just before I turned 19, and at the time I was at Queen's University studying to be a psychiatric nurse.

I was treated with chemotherapy and went back to finish the second year of my nursing degree. I was back about eight months when I fell ill again.

I had suffered a miscarriage that year and was getting a pain in my shoulder. At first, the doctors put it down to the miscarriage, but it went on for months and I ended up in hospital with it.

I was worried, but I never thought it would be the cancer back. They did a scan and discovered that it was indeed back. There was a tumour in front of my lung that hadn't been there before - the first one had been behind my breast bone. This was in April 2011.

This time, I went through chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and radiotherapy.

I went for another scan to see if I was in remission and everything looked good, but a few weeks later I found a lump in my neck that had never been there before.

I went straight to the doctor and he referred me to the Royal Victoria Hospital and it turned out it was the cancer again.

This time, however, it was Hodgkin lymphoma. I couldn't believe I had cancer for the third time. At one stage they told me they found another lump. They told me that a stem cell transplant was my only option, but they didn't think I was well enough for treatment, that I wouldn't survive it.

I was told that without the treatment I had six to 12 months and I had pretty much made up my mind that I would rather be relatively well for six months than spend most of the time in hospital.

It was at this stage that another surgeon came forward and offered to operate to try and find out what kind of cancer it was.

It turned out after the surgery that it was a tumour, but there was no cancer there and I had to go through more treatment, which knocked out my immune system completely.

I finished all of my treatments for the cancer in November 2014 and I'm in remission at the moment, but the treatment itself was really hard on me.

That's just one of the complications of the treatment, that it can be life-threatening itself. As a result, I spent most of this year really ill.

Most people can fight off a virus, but because my immunity is through the floor I was totally floored when I got something as simple as a cold.

I have had seven viruses in the past year and they go into my chest and make breathing very difficult.

My energy levels would have been very low as well, making it difficult to just get on with everyday life. Some days are fine, but some are really hard.

Over the summer, the longest I was out of hospital was three weeks and I only really got out of hospital properly in October.

I don't think that in the past six years I have managed to go more than six months without being admitted to hospital, so my aim this year is to stay out of hospital.

This past year has been really tough, I have been really ill, so I am looking forward to a healthier 2016. I feel like I am recovering well now and I just hope everything continues to get better.

I don't think I could cope with going back to Queen's just yet as it's an intensive course, but while I was unwell I did a counselling course and that is something I would like to expand upon next year.

I would also like to study nutrition and work with cancer patients, because I don't think the information for cancer patients is particularly good.

It's really going to be about getting my life back, spending time with my wonderfully supportive boyfriend of five years Michael Collingwood (25) and getting back in touch with all of my friends and my family.

I am also planning a trip to South Africa as we used to have an apartment there and I really want to go back when I'm not sick.

It has been difficult, but hopefully 2016 is going to be better for me.

Aidan Murtagh (51) is single and owns and runs a guesthouse and bar in Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh.

If you had told me this time last year what 2015 was going to be like, I would never have believed you.

My health was beginning to deteriorate, but I never dreamt I would need a kidney transplant, or get one, this year.

I was born with only one kidney, but it went undiagnosed for about the first 30 years of my life.

I had gone to the doctor because I wasn't feeling well when they realised I only had one kidney.

It turned out that my kidney wasn't functioning as well as it should so my body wasn't able to get rid of all the toxins.

At the time they told me that one day I would need a kidney transplant.

Of course I was worried, but I put it to the back of my mind and tried not to think about it.

I have to say I had hoped I would get a bit longer before it came to needing the transplant.

I was monitored over the years at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and Belfast City Hospital.

It was two years ago at Christmas when it was decided I needed a transplant. Even still, I thought it was well down the line, I thought they were just playing it safe.

I had to go to the hospital a couple of times a year and they would check my kidney function, and it was always all right - until this year.

It was a gradual process, I went along and they told me the function was dropping. It was at 32% and they told me that when it was at 16% it would be a dangerous level. By the time I had my transplant it was at 5%.

It was really starting to impact on my life. I was still able to work up until I had the operation, but I was so lethargic that I could only manage to work for a while before I had to rest. I would have gone swimming a couple of times a week before I became ill, but I had to stop that.

The tiredness was the worst and I also had the most horrible taste in my throat, it was like all the toxins were coming up, and I was constantly trying to find something to get rid of the taste.

I was on dialysis, the first dialysis they tried didn't agree with me. I had to have surgery to have a tube fitted in to my stomach for the dialysis, but then I ended up with two hernias as a result, so I had to have two more operations to repair the damage.

They started me on a different dialysis, which was time-consuming, although I was lucky as I worked at home and was able to go off and do it myself during the day.

I had to do the dialysis manually, I would have to put in two litres of fluid into the tube and then drain it out four hours later.

Fortunately, I was only on dialysis for 12 days when the call came through about the transplant.

I was actually behind the bar working at the time. I will never forget that moment, it was 1.05pm on Saturday, September 12. It was all fairly frantic, I ran around, getting packed and showered and my brother drove me to Belfast.

I think we got there about 3pm and about 10.30pm the doctor came and told me the operation was going ahead the next day.

As it turns out, there were five of us getting kidney transplants at the City Hospital over that 24-hour period.

I had already seen one woman that day being told that she wouldn't be getting her transplant, so I knew what she had gone through and I was so happy when that didn't happen to me.

My two brothers, Francis (59) and Martin (49), had both registered as possible live donors, but my donor turned out to be from a deceased person.

I found out afterwards that he was a man who had suffered a bleed on the brain.

I wanted to know that my operation was a success before I made contact with his family, so I sent them a letter at Christmas because I thought it would be a difficult time for them and I wanted them to know what a difference they have made to my family.

I've had quite a year, I ended up having five operations, two for the hernias, the actual transplant, and another surgery to remove the dialysis tube.

I am just starting to recover and thinking about getting back to my swimming. I'm looking forward to the back of 2015 and enjoying 2016.

Belfast Telegraph


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