SDLP's Denise Mullen: Trauma of witnessing dad's murder as child caused my cancer
Now free of the illness following major surgery, the Mid Ulster SDLP district councillor says she was 10 before she told anyone what she saw the night her dad was murdered
Mid Ulster politician Denise Mullen was just four-years-old when she witnessed her father Denis being shot dead on the doorstep of her family home. The SDLP councillor says the suppressed horrific memories and childhood trauma she suffered resulted in her being diagnosed with cancer four years ago.
The 47-year-old Moy mother-of-two sons - Colm (18) and Conor (9) - was told shortly before the last council elections that she had pseudomyxoma peritonei. The rare cancer - which took the lives of the Belfast Telegraph's political editor Liam Clarke and Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn - centres around the appendix.
Denise says she is certain that seeing her dad murdered by the notorious loyalist Glenanne gang in 1975, hearing them shoot at her mother Olive as she fled across fields to safety and sitting in her blood-soaked nightie at her dead father's side awaiting help caused her to fall ill in later years.
She believes suppressing emotions and trauma to the pit of her stomach - near where the appendix in situated -led her to develop this specific cancer.
She says she was diagnosed almost by accident.
"Four years ago in December I was getting into my car in Dungannon and a car came up the street and clipped me," she adds.
"The wing mirror just hit me on the back. It was sore and I remember muttering a few choice words. By the time I got into the car the pain was gone.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"Later that week I was back at work for the first time since the Christmas holidays and felt very unwell sitting at my desk. Basically it felt like I was having contractions in my stomach every 20 minutes. I thought it was the result of getting hit with the car.
"I clocked out of work and went around to see the nurse at the GP surgery and she sent for the doctor who sent me straight to Craigavon Area Hospital.
"They did tests. My bloods were normal. At 1am they decided to send me for keyhole surgery to see what was going on. The next day I recall being told they removed my appendix.
"Two weeks later I got a call from a secretary in the oncology department asking me if I could be at the hospital the next morning. At the time I had no clue about medical things and I didn't catch on what oncology was. I actually told the girl on the phone I had to work, had no time to be sitting in the hospital and we ended the call there.
"Ten minutes later my GP rang and asked me if I had just had a call from the oncology department. He told me it was imperative I be at the hospital in the morning. I asked him to tell me what it was about and he explained that I had a tumour on my appendix and that it was cancer."
Denise says everyone has a different reaction to finding out they have cancer. She says her reaction was pure defiance.
"I remember sitting in the car in the bank car park when the GP was explaining it all to me," she says.
"He said the word cancer and I just listened. When I came off the phone I didn't even shed a tear, if I'm honest. I literally said into myself 'to Hell with you cancer, you'll not beat me'.
"The next day I was down at the hospital bright and early and they explained that it was pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare form of cancer of the appendix, and that I would have to have surgery. The doctor told me that there were only about 12 people in Northern Ireland with this form of cancer. He told me that the tumour was at the end of my appendix and was the size of a teaspoon. I wanted to know what caused it, but there were no answers to that.
"I didn't tell anyone in my family for a while. The first person I called when I left the hospital was Alasdair McDonnell. He had been really good to me over the years and he was also a doctor. He was as much shocked as I was and told me that they would be with me every step of the way. I really didn't have anyone else to talk to about it. I kept it to myself for a couple of days, wondering what I was going to do, and how I was going to tell my boys and my mother.
"I told my brother. And I suppose because of the childhood that we had, he said to me 'well you know what you'll have to do, you'll just have to get on with it'. And some people thought that was a bit cold, but that's just the way our lives had panned out. We really just had to get on with things and this was no different.
"I told my mum that I had been diagnosed and she told me later that she went home and shouted to God at the top of her voice 'why have you done this to us?'
"It wasn't until I took ill a few weeks after I was diagnosed, while we were away at Easter, that I had to tell the children about what was going on.
"We had been away for a few days in Donegal and I was rushed by ambulance to Letterkenny Hospital with excruciating pains in my stomach. It felt like my whole stomach was on fire. It was absolutely horrendous.
"I had to tell my boys at that point and I remember the look on their little faces. I told them I was going to be okay.
"I told them that I was getting surgery and that they were going to take it away and everything was going to be fine.
"I had a few hospital stays along the way and they were very trying. Seeing my boys leave at night was living Hell. Before the last election, four years ago I was signing my nomination papers from hospital bed and organising posters and leaflets from there, too."
At the start of July, Denise went into theatre for six-hour surgery to remove half of her bowel, her gallbladder and several lymph nodes. She didn't need chemotherapy. She says the cancer is gone, although she has to have regular check-ups.
"I'm almost afraid to say that I am cancer free," she says. "I do have two lumps in my stomach, one the size of a mandarin orange, that I need to have removed but the doctor says they are not cancerous.
"They never tell you that you are cancer free. I attend the Royal Victoria Hospital twice a year and I have all these tests done. Those tests are my worst nightmare. I can't cope with them. Whenever I have to go for them and I am going through the MRI machine - where you are totally encased in this machine and you have to stay so still - I get through it by thinking please God make my mother or my children not ever have to go through this.
"Four years on from diagnosis, I feel fine about it. There are times when my energy levels are low and there are times I am angry because I had to go through it. Other than that I feel well.
"I still have symptoms, one of which is swelling in my stomach as fluid builds up. There are times when I can look like I am nine months pregnant and I have been asked when the baby is due.
"That is one of the side effects of the cancer I had, and it will be here with me forever."
Denise says she believes the trauma she experienced as a child has contributed to her developing this certain type of cancer.
"I was 10-years-old before I told anyone what I saw the night my father was murdered," she says. "My mother wasn't well and I didn't speak of it. I pushed it down to the pit of my stomach. Your appendix is at the pit of your stomach. I went through my childhood having panic attacks, gasping for breath, being a loner, pushing all those memories down so much that my emotions inside me were actually suffocating me. I feel those oppressed emotions from I was four years of age, buried in the pit of my stomach, made me ill."
However Denise says she is positive about the future.
"I just take one day at a time," she says. "I have a really positive mental attitude. I know so many people who have gone through cancer and they are the most positive people.
"Having cancer has changed my perspective on life. Even in my business, it has made me so easy going. And I would have been stressed out for years worrying if my house was tidy, my dishes were done, my cupboards were orderly or if something wasn't sitting perfectly. Since I got cancer, I don't give a hoot. As long as the children are happy, mummy is happy. We are getting by and there is food on the table.
"Going through cancer has also made me think life is too short, people should be kinder to one another. There is just no time for hate and negativity."