In 2021, Aoife McCullough started getting mild pains in her lower abdomen. “I thought it was IBS or something like that and because the symptoms were very slight, I let them go for a couple of months,” says Aoife, who lives in Dunleer, Co Louth.
Her bowel habits then changed and on a weekend away, her stomach began to swell. “My appetite went and anytime I’d try to eat anything I felt full straight away and my tummy kept growing. I’m a slim person and I noticed that I looked six months pregnant at one stage and it was all fluid. I knew then that something was really wrong,” she says.
Aoife visited her doctor who referred her to A & E. Because of the 10-12 hour waiting time when she got there, she paid to have a scan done privately. The scan indicated there was fluid in her abdomen and a 7cm and an 8cm cyst on each of her ovaries. “At this stage, we didn’t know it was cancer,” Aoife says. Two days later, she was hospitalised with pain in her stomach and she was admitted to hospital in Louth where doctors looked at her scans and did a biopsy of the fluid. Aoife then received a diagnosis of Stage 4 ovarian cancer.
“I was only 38 at the time, and it came as a massive shock. I am very much into fitness and mountain climbing and have scaled to the top of Kilimanjaro and Everest base camp. I wondered how this could actually be happening to me, someone who was always so fit and healthy,” she says. This was also during Covid restrictions and she wasn’t able to have any visitors in hospital. “Nobody could come and hold my hand,” she says.
Aoife was referred to the Mater hospital and began chemotherapy. She then had a 12-hour operation called cytoreductive surgery to try and remove any visible disease. This surgery involved a full hysterectomy and the removal of her appendix, part of her bowel, lymph nodes and part of her spleen. During this surgery, she also had HIPEC, a heated chemotherapy treatment that is delivered to the abdomen and which was previously only available for patients who travelled to the UK before the first case was performed at the Mater in 2013.
“That was really tough,” she says. “I was in the high dependency unit for three nights and that was probably the hardest part of my journey. There was real mental anguish when I was in there.”
After recovering from surgery, Aoife had more chemotherapy, which finished three months ago.
“I am now on a maintenance drug called olaparib for the next two years, hoping to keep the cancer at bay,” says Aoife. “I have a mutation in my gene, BRACA 1, which is probably why I got ovarian cancer in the first place so I take these tablets every day and it stops the cancer cells from repairing. Unfortunately, I was told it’s not a case of if it comes back, it’s a case of when, but I’m living life to the max and I am so positive for the future.
“There’s so much research happening, it’s unbelievable and I really do believe that we will eventually be able to manage all types of cancer. The treatments are getting better all the time. For me, it was hard, but I thought it was going to be more difficult. During chemotherapy, I took anti-sickness medication so I didn’t feel nauseous. It’s only when you go through something like that that you realise what’s going on behind the scenes with regards to research.”
She’s now back exercising again, and has returned to the mountains and to hiking and has plans to go on holidays to France.
Her advice to others is always visit a GP if you have any concerns.
“If there’s any slight thing you think is not right, no matter how small you think it is because it’s so important to get things checked. If something goes on for longer than two weeks, go to your doctor,” she says.
Contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line
If you have worries or concerns about cancer, you can speak confidentially to an Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurse through the Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.
Monday to Friday, 9.00am - 5.00pm
For more information