Clonbur woman’s slow boat to America in her battle against cancer

When 26-year-old Clonbur woman Mary Philbin was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, she hoped she would beat the disease, but did not know that the treatment would be her biggest enemy. Unable to fly on a plane, she took a boat to America to meet a doctor who she hopes will give her her normal life back. This is her story.

Eight years ago in May 2005, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. At the time I was diagnosed, I wasn't to know having undergone chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and beating the cancer, that I would be left with very severe and long-term side effects from the treatment. The last eight years have been an ongoing battle with many hospitalizations and suffering. I didn't think the discovery of my illness would someday lead me from a small town in Ireland to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But here I am.

Going back to when I was diagnosed, I was told I had nasopharyngeal carcinoma, which was a tumor of my sinuses and extending to the base of my tongue, to the base of my brain and up to my left eye.

Two years I had been waiting for an answer to my pain and lack of energy; life was tumbling down around me, and nothing would kill the pain. I was existing, not living.

The day I got my answer -- an answer no one wants to get -- but, in my case, it left me with options: My cancer was highly treatable, so I had radiotherapy for seven weeks and five rounds of chemo, the last round of which I refused, as I felt I was at death's door. At this point, I hadn't been eating anything.

Radiation fried my mouth

I started my treatment on August 8, and two weeks in as a result of radiation damage, I lost my saliva, as my salivary glands were completely destroyed. I was unable to eat, as the radiation was so severe and intense, it burned (you could say 'fried' ) my mouth and throat, literally, for the three months duration of my treatment.

I spent my days and nights coughing up blood. I can remember there were months in which I couldn't brush my teeth. The pain was so horrendous that before I could even get the toothbrush in my hand to start, I was too weak to stand. After some time, the nurses had coerced me into letting them use sponge swabs and a petri dish full of water at my bedside. It took some persuasion to get around me, as it was a traumatic ordeal, cleaning the blood stains from my teeth and mouth. That was an all day, every day occurrence while going through the radiotherapy treatment. There were times during the radiotherapy treatment when they had no choice but to stop the treatment to give me breaks, sometimes for two weeks in between, as my system broke down, and I just wasn't able to go through it. So, what started out as being seven weeks of radiotherapy, took me three months to complete. It was a matter of weighing up the pros and cons.

The essence of what I am saying is that if the cancer wasn't killing me, the treatment surely was. I was failing and getting weaker, and my system was breaking down. I felt like I was dying a slow death. I was a patient, but I could relate to the concept of time, in terms of a prisoners life, because I kept focused on how much longer it would be before the treatment would cease. The day I refused the last round of chemo, I guess some would say I took my chances -- maybe so, but I remember that day like it was yesterday, and I believe if I took that last round of chemo, I wouldn't be here today. The doctor took one look at me; I was ready to put up a fight, but he never argued with me.

Losing my voice

During those months, I knew what it was like to hit rock bottom, and when you're down that low, it's very hard to see yourself getting back up. Being so weak and in so much pain, there was no life in me. I was barely able to walk for months without someone with me. There were times, as a result of nerve damage from treatment, that I used to collapse to the ground, and it would take me ages to get back up on my feet. And I would get no warning signs -- scary, because on one occasion, I was crossing the road! During this time, I lost my voice for three months from the radiation. I communicated via pen and paper. The doctors involved in my care at the time thought my voice would never come back, but it finally did.

All in all, my battle was one of victory, for I have seen many kindred people and good friends come and go since I got sick. With the will of God, I am still here, and I certainly don't take that for granted, having survived the last eight years. It can only be said from experience, having endured all the suffering, that the human body is a testament to what the human spirit can withstand. That does amaze me.

I have often seen The Shawshank Redemption, and a line in it sticks with me: "You either get busy livin' or get busy dyin." I know you certainly can't do both. Many times throughout my treatment, I have heard those very words echo through my mind and thoughts, and the conclusion I came to was this: I was doing neither; I was somewhere in between -- just existing.

I was always a person to live in the moment because that's all any of us have. I'm not going to say that I don't think about the future, but I didn't worry about it. I loved going out and rarely refused an invite from friends. I loved life. I always knew, you only live once. My friends have often heard me say, "You only live once; you could be dead tomorrow", and that very truth transpired in my life. I tried not to leave anything unsaid and strived to do the things I aspired to; travelling being my heart's desire. When all my friends around me wanted to go to New York, I wanted to see the country. Being a country girl and a lover of country and bluegrass music, I wanted to go to Nashville, Tennessee, Montana and North Carolina.

In 2005, I was 19. It was May of the end of my first year in college right before I was due to sit for my exams when I was diagnosed. During that year, I skipped into town one day with every intention to take out a loan to travel. I was prepared to leave college. I knew I could always return. I wanted to be free, living and experiencing life. I didn't want to be institutionalized in college at such a young age.

A long road to America

Well, that never did come through for me and, although I'm cancer free, I am left with very severe side effects. Not being able to eat, having to live on liquid nutrition, a permanent dry mouth due to the radiation, and so many hospitalizations over the past eight years, I have lost count. Needless to say, all of this really wipes you out physically. It's been a long road, a road that has been my life, my journey.

How did I end up in North Carolina? That road I was on found me at a crossroads in my life with two choices. I had been told recently following medical tests that I am significantly aspirating into my lungs. I knew straight off that wasn’t good. The only thing in my mind was how long will my now healthy lungs sustain that? I was told that the only thing on my side is my youth and that I’m mobile. And then I was offered a peg tube (stomach feeding tube ). I knew I definitely didn’t want to go down that road if I could at all help it. I had had a peg tube for seven months while I was undergoing treatment. I had to take everything through the tube, as I was too sore and in too much pain to even contemplate eating, and I was just too weak.

So, now I was being offered a peg tube again, and several times I refused it. At this point, there was no more that could be offered, as more surgery was too high a risk. So, I began to research online and discovered a wonderful doctor who was based in North Carolina. I read stories online where there were patients of his who weren’t able to eat -- some for 10 years -- and needing regular procedures as I had had. I thought I had to meet this man.

For some reason, I knew it was no coincidence that I discovered this doctor. I’m a great believer in faith. The only thing was, how was I going to get myself to North Carolina, taking into account that I couldn’t fly due to the side effects from treatment? In any event, I knew it was going to be a gamble I would have to take because I knew there was no guarantee this doctor could do anything until he saw me. And then there was the long journey for someone in my shoes. At the best of times, I have little or no energy. I wasn’t eating anything, living on a liquid diet, and the previous year, I had been in and out of hospital almost every other month. So leaving Ireland, I was anything but strong, at least physically. But in my mind and heart, I was strong.

No planes, but trains and boats

I left Ireland in November 2012. We drove to the bottom of Ireland to Rosslare, County Wexford, got the ferry to Fishguard in Wales, made it by car to Southampton, England, and got on a ship there bound for the US. Seven days and nights later, the ship docked at Manhattan harbor, New York. The train journey from New York to North Carolina to where I needed to go was a duration of 12 hours, 45 minutes. I made it in 13 days, having to stop along the way because I was so weak. But I made it.

At this point, I have had surgery not long after arriving, just before Christmas, and it has gone very well. I am still recovering and trying to get myself strong for further surgery. I am not able to eat food yet, but I am hopeful.

However, I am fighting more than the one battle of my current health. I'm here on the faith that there is opportunity in America to improve my condition and, in doing so, improve my life. But it comes with great expense. And I need your help.

I passionately plea to anyone out there in the world who might find themselves in a position to help me, no matter how small. It will be greatly appreciated. I see this as my last shot at improving my life. I’m only 26, and I may not get this chance again. I’ve heard it said, "If you reach for the moon, you just may land on a star."

Well, I certainly hope that’s true. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read my story.

To see a video of Mary’s story and to donate to the fund to help her receive her treatment, go to http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/mary-s-journey-of-hope/45975 . The link is also contained on the Galway Advertiser Facebook page.

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