Liam Galvin and his family

Wexford based Liam Galvin was diagnosed with a very rare cancer called Thymic Carcinoma in March 2021, aged 57.  Thymic cancers can be hard to detect, affecting approximately just 1 in a million, and to mark Thymic Malignancy month, Liam is sharing his story to raise awareness and to help others going through a diagnosis of rare cancer.

“I’d always been fit and active and was never really sick but developed a cough in early January 2021. However, as there was a cough in the house I didn’t think too much of it.  However, the cough worsened and persisted well into February.  Because this was during covid my GP wasn’t as accessible and I wondered was I unwell enough to attend the surgery. I rang and was referred directly to the hospital for an X-ray. This x-ray showed some abnormalities and my GP then sent me straight to A & E.  At this stage I was sure I had a chest infection, or worst case scenario, maybe pneumonia. 

I was in the hospital for 4 nights and underwent various tests, including a CT scan before being sent home with antibiotics.  A few days later I was called back into the hospital as the CT had shown that although my lungs were clear there was some sort of mass in my thymus gland (in the chest cavity between the lungs and heart).

I was then sent to the Mater Hospital, Dublin for a biopsy later that week, and after an anxious 5 day wait for results was told it was cancer. It was devastating.  Due to covid, I got the results on my own, with my wife Lisa listening in over video call.  Lisa has been my rock throughout all of this and we still laugh to this day about hearing that news, as due to listening over the phone and only hearing parts of the conversation clearly, when the doctor told me to "go home and spend time with my family" - she thought that was it! She couldn’t hear the rest of what the consultant said about getting a treatment plan in place - God help her It goes to show the power of words and hearing half a story!"

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"Receiving the news I had cancer was devastating but everyone I came into contact with in the Mater was amazing!  There was no doom and gloom, in fact, I was infused with optimism coming out of there that everything would be treatable and beatable.

"I began chemotherapy treatment in April, on my son's 12th birthday. The team allowed me to spend the day with my family and come in late that evening to be ready to begin treatment the next day. The thoughts of chemo would previously have terrified me, but now I was bursting to get it done so I could start fighting this thing.  Also, I had an amazing and very practical nurse called Mags in Waterford Hospital who really took the fear out of everything for me.

I always thought of myself as being pretty emotionally self-sufficient and didn’t think I would need or want any counseling. But, during a visit to the Daffodil Center at the Whitfield Hospital, I spoke with a lovely cancer nurse, and a couple of minutes into telling my tale I had tears just rolling down my face and dripping off my chin!!!  She referred me for free counselling through the Irish Cancer Society and this has really helped me to move forwards.

I had a lot of side effects from the chemo but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I feared, a lot of the credit for that goes to Lisa, my wife, she organised all my meds and kept me feeling as well as I could - she still does!"

"My hair did fall out - three times now since 2021! I had always had a full head of curly hair and knew it would fall out but still found it incredibly upsetting when it happened for the first time.  Not so much for the loss of the hair but because when I looked in the mirror it really brought home the fact that I had cancer.  It was a strange one, I thought I was ready for it, but every now and then going through cancer you get ambushed with intense emotions.

I had 6 rounds of chemo and 35 sessions of radiotherapy. In October my tumour was shrinking, and things were stable, which was great news.  I enjoyed Christmas with my family and had my next scan early in 2022. This showed that a little nodule had appeared in the tumour and so I was back on a different chemo for another 6 months.  This finished just in time for my 59th birthday!

Unfortunately, my next scan showed that the tumour had grown again.  This wasn’t news I wanted to hear.  In December I started on Pembrolizumab - an immunotherapy drug - I was optimistic and hopeful as I’d read a lot about it and hoped it may be my "silver bullet "."

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"Be really kind to yourself and all those around you - we are all precious, we are all fragile, we all need to look after one another.

"I had my most recent scan in March of this year.  Unfortunately, the pembro, although very effective for some, has not worked for me and tumour has grown again.   I am now on another newish drug, Sutent (sunitinib),  a targeted therapy drug.  This is a tablet taken every day for 2 weeks followed by a week off.  It is a tribute to ongoing research that there are more options now for treatment.  I am due my next scan at the end of May to see what impact the drug is having and I’m really hopeful it’s going to show stabilisation.

My advice to anyone going through cancer is to seek help and speak about it when you’re ready. I found it really hard to talk about my diagnosis at first and I’m a chatty person by nature!  When I was ready though I contacted the Hope Centre and through them have met many lovely, supportive people also on the cancer journey. For me speaking to people in a similar boat is fantastic.  It makes such a difference to hear stories from those who have "been there, done that" and also to those who are newly diagnosed that we, as a group, can help to support and encourage.

Another bit of practical advice would be to keep a basic diary of how you are feeling physically (symptoms/side-effects) and mentally (good days/bad days), particularly when going through treatment. I find this to be unbelievably beneficial.  Each cycle of treatment builds a picture of symptoms/side effects that can be referred back to during the following cycles.  Anytime I am having a bad day, physically or mentally, I look back through my diary for the corresponding day and can understand more or even pre-empt my symptoms and mood, this gives me a feeling of some control.  This really helps me to maintain a positive mental attitude and remain motivated.

My inspiration is my wife, Lisa, and my two teenage sons. Cancer affects the whole family, we are all living with this diagnosis but the key for us is "living with it" not "dying from it" in every way we can, for as long as we can.

Finally, be really kind to yourself and all those around you - we are all precious, we are all fragile, we all need to look after one another."

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