Andrea Harvey speaks to Stephanie Bell about being diagnosed with cancer for the third time, 13 years after she fought two other cancers
Having cancer once is a trauma but having it three times and also in the middle of a pandemic has been like a living nightmare for Co Antrim mum Andrea Harvey.
Pressures on the health service and Covid restrictions meant that getting diagnosed and treated was an uphill and lengthy battle.
Thirteen years after first battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008 followed by Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009, the unthinkable happened when in August 2020, Andrea (36) was told she had tumours in her right ovary and liver.
At the time of her diagnosis, the tumour in her ovary measured 6cm. Due to delays caused by the pandemic it was nine months before the cancer was removed. By that stage the tumour had more than doubled in size to 13cm.
But despite what was a terrifying ordeal, Andrea is grateful to be on the road to recovery and remarkably is now focused on fundraising for other cancer patients.
Not only is she leading the call for people to sign up for the annual Cancer Research UK Race for Life event in May, but she is also organising a fundraiser of her own in Moira.
Andrea, who lives in Lisburn with her 17-year-old daughter Faith, knows exactly how vital it is to raise funds for life-saving research.
She says: “Cancer was a tough thing to go through and there were many frightening moments, but it will be a special moment this spring when I stand at the start line at Race for Life.
“We all have a reason to Race for Life. For me it will be a celebration of my survival as well as a chance to raise money to help others facing cancer right now.
“It’s thanks to advances in research and treatments that I’m here and can enjoy more special moments with my family and friends.
“I’m excited to Race for Life and play my part to fund research today, which I hope will also help beat cancer for future generations.”
Andrea was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2008 and following chemotherapy was told she was in remission. “It was wonderful to hear that good news,” she said.
“But as time passed, I had a niggling feeling that something was not right.
“I sought advice from doctors, who still said I was in remission, but when I found a lump on my neck, a biopsy revealed that the cancer was back, but this time it was Hodgkin Lymphoma.
“I didn’t think I was going to die the first time but because I was diagnosed again so soon, I really thought I was going to die. I was so worried about my Faith who was only three years old.”
Both cancers are very different. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system while Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the white blood cells.
Andrea underwent a stem cell transplant and more intensive chemotherapy which left her with damaged lungs, resulting in continuous chest infections for the next three years.
However, thankfully she made a full recovery and really thought it was behind her when in the summer of 2020 during the early months of the pandemic she was horrified to find swollen lymph nodes.
She recalls: “I still attend haematology and the lymphoma nurse there was able to get me an appointment and I was red flagged for a CT scan which revealed tumours in my ovary and liver.
“I was then told I needed an MRI scan but that was going to be at least five weeks.
“I was totally devastated as my gran died from ovarian cancer and she got only two weeks after diagnosis and was 68.
“A week later my left leg had really bad swelling and I had to be admitted to hospital. I was really worried and asked if it was a symptom of cancer.
“I was crying my eyes out because I was so worried.
“I couldn’t wait five weeks and as soon as I got out of hospital, I paid for an MRI scan privately which confirmed that there were tumours in my ovary and liver.
“My anxiety increased when the hospital said they didn’t know when I could have surgery because of Covid.
“At that stage I had a 6cm ovarian tumour. The next few months were terrifying for me. I knew I had cancer, but I didn’t know when it was going to be taken out of me. When I eventually had surgery in February 2021 the tumour was 13cm.”
The removal of the tumour revealed a very rare form of ovarian cancer.
Andrea then faced another operation in April of last year for a full hysterectomy to ensure the cancer didn’t spread.
She describes what she went through as like a “living hell” and adds: “It was terrible and very stressful having to wait knowing I had tumours inside me.
“It felt like nobody was listening to me and I got really low.
“All I could think about was Faith as I was scared to leave her. The growth in my liver is still there but they aren’t too worried about it and are keeping an eye on it.
“Having cancer three times is scary but at least I am out the other end, and I am enjoying life.”
Now Andrea is looking forward to completing the Race for Life 5k at Stormont Estate in Belfast on Sunday, May 22.
She is also planning her own fundraiser in May called “Memories Treasured and Memories Made”.
It is being held in the Alchemy nightclub on May 14 with dancing to a live DJ, a raffle and auction.
Andrea says: “Tickets are £10. We are asking people as they buy tickets if they have or had a loved one affected by cancer to submit a photograph and write a few sentences about them.
“We will have a big screen up on the night when we hope to show the pictures and words which people gave to us.
“I hope it will make the night a wee bit more personal for people and remind them why we are doing this.
“We also have lots of great prizes for an auction and raffle and I would really hope I can raise a few thousand pounds for cancer research and also to improve screening and cancer services.”
Around 9,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in Northern Ireland every year and one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will get cancer in their lifetime.
Money raised at Race for Life enables scientists to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer — helping to save more lives.
Run in partnership with Tesco, Race for Life is an inspiring series of 3k, 5k, 10k events which raise millions of pounds every year for crucial research.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson in Northern Ireland, said: “We are incredibly grateful to Andrea for her support.
“Sadly, cancer affects all of us in some way. Whether people are living with cancer, taking part in honour of or in memory of a loved one with cancer, or signing up to protect their own children’s future, everyone has a reason to Race for Life.
“So we’re asking people across Northern Ireland: ‘Who will you Race for?’
“Our Race for Life events are open to all. For some people, the Race for Life is literally a walk in the park. Slow and steady still wins.
“For others, it’s a jog. Others may opt to push themselves harder, taking up the challenge of the 10K distance and even pushing for a new personal best time.
“But what is for certain is we’re looking forward to welcoming people of all ages and abilities. Race for Life Belfast will be fun, emotional, colourful, uplifting and an unforgettable event this year.”
Oonagh Turnbull, head of health campaigns at Tesco, adds: “This will be our 21st year in partnership with Cancer Research UK and Race for Life and we hope this year can be the biggest yet.”
Tickets for Andrea’s fundraising disco and auction can be booked through Facebook/Andrea J Harvey. Find out how to support Cancer Research UK’s event at raceforlife.org