'I don’t think I fully realised how sick I was. I remember going down to the Irish Cancer Society Daffodil Centre in the hospital. I would go in and read the booklets, and chat away with the Daffodil nurses. I found that really helpful.'
In 2014, 17 year-old Sarah O’Neill began experiencing severe pain in her chest. “I had been in and out to the doctor getting the pain checked out, and there was always an explanation found for it. However, four months later, it was still ongoing. Deep down, I knew something wasn’t quite right.
One night I was laying down in bed and the pain was so bad, I felt I couldn’t breathe. I told my mum, and she said we were going straight to A&E. I remember my friend was staying with me at the time, I texted her to say I would be back in the morning. I ended up not coming home for six weeks.”
In A&E Sarah was booked in for an x-ray, which showed up something unusual. She was then sent for further tests and scans to determine exactly what was going on. Two weeks later, Sarah was told they had found a tumour in her chest and she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I remember being in total disbelief and thinking, ‘But 17-year-olds don’t get cancer!’ I was about to start my Leaving Cert! The diagnosis was a Sunday, and by Wednesday I had begun my chemotherapy. I was so used to the way I had been feeling, I don’t think I fully realised how sick I was. I remember going down to the Irish Cancer Society Daffodil Centre in the hospital. I would go in and read the booklets, and chat away with the Daffodil nurses. I found that really helpful.
My chemotherapy was for five days in a row. They told me I would lose my hair. As a 17-year-old, this was the worst news. A hairdresser came in to shave off my hair, and my mum ended up shaving her head alongside me,” Sarah recalls.
Sarah’s chemotherapy lasted six months with surgery taking place in April. In June, Sarah went into school to sit her Leaving Cert exam. “They had originally wanted me to take a year off, but I hated school, and I knew if I didn’t finish it now, I wouldn’t finish it at all. I had missed a lot of school and all I wanted to do was pass. Also, doing the exam made me feel more normal. It was an experience I could share with my friends.”
A month later, Sarah began her radiation treatment. Once this was completed, Sarah’s scans thankfully came back clear.
Looking back on her experience, Sarah says she found the years that followed the most difficult. “A few years after I finished treatment, it all sank in, what I had went through. Getting back to navigating your life – that was really difficult. You never fully go back to the way you were, it’s a new normal. Being able to accept that, at first, is not easy. I was in ‘fight or flight’ mode for so long.
“I definitely felt isolated from other people my own age. They didn’t fully understand what I had went through. They would often get hung up or worried about such little things. I felt like I couldn’t relate. My nanny was sick with cancer around the same time, and we really bonded over that, she could understand everything I was going through,” Sarah says.
It’s now nine years since Sarah was diagnosed, and she is now 26 years old. “All these years later, I still get the worries or panics. If I get a headache, I get scared. Or if I have to get my bloods taken, I worry they will find something. Most other people don’t have that reaction.”
Sarah’s focus is now on helping others improve their fitness and feel good about themselves. “I now own a gym with my partner, and I am a personal trainer. I always tell my clients, ‘Your health is your wealth. If something doesn’t feel right, make sure you look into it, and prioritise your health. Go for your check-ups and your screening appointments. You won’t ever regret it.’”
Daffodil Day 2023
For more information
1800 200 700