In our series of articles about people who have survived cancer, SEAN McLAUGHLIN talks to Waterside mother-of-three DOROTHY GILLESPIE - a remarkable woman who has beaten the disease not once but twice.
Dorothy Gillespie is, by her own admission, a “walking miracle.”
And it’s hard to argue with this truly remarkable woman who has survived cancer - not once but twice.
Mother-of-three Dorothy, from the Waterside, has been told countless times that she “shouldn’t be alive” - but the very fact that she is only goes to underscore her determination, conviction and resolve to defy the odds.
“I suppose I’m living proof that a diagnosis of cancer - or, in my case, two diagnoses - doesn’t necessarily mean that life should stop.
“There is life after cancer - in some cases, a new life - and I think it’s very important to get this message across.”
Dorothy’s first run-in with the disease came in February 2002 when she developed a burning sensation in her throat - as she says, “different to the feeling of a normal sore throat.”
“I’d been to the GP on a number of occasions,” she says. “The possibility of this being cancer hadn’t registered with me.
“After six months, however, I had constant pain, burning, hoarseness and difficulty eating.
“I attended A&E and was advised there was a possible obstruction in my throat which merited further investigation. I went back to the GP and was, then, referred to an ENT specialist. After a series of tests and biopsies, I was asked to come back to the clinic. Even at this stage, it still hadn’t registered with me that it might be cancer - so much so that I went to the hospital on my own to receive the results.
“I was absolutely shocked to be told I had cancer - an aggressive tumour in my larynx.”
Dorothy says the length of time that had elapsed since first developing symptoms and the diagnosis was such that options were limited.
“Radiotherapy was being proposed as the first option with the aim of shrinking and eliminating the tumour. Consultants told me that throat cancer normally responded well to radiotherapy and that it could, potentially, be successfully treated. I was given an appointment for my first session, planned for five weeks after initial diagnosis.
“However, in the meantime, the tumour had spread rapidly and I was told radiotherapy was no longer an option and that the ‘Plan B’ - removal of the larynx - was now the only available option.
“I was devastated to be told that it would involve the removal of my voice box and that I would never be able to speak naturally again. It’s difficult to describe how I felt - it was pure shock and disbelief.”
Dorothy’s surgery took place in October 2002. The operation lasted almost 12 hours. She spent three days in intensive care before being transferred to a ward.
“I stayed in hospital for more than two months recovering from the surgery,” she recalls. “I had to learn how to eat and drink again. A notebook and pen was now my only means of communication.”
Life after surgery, acknowledges Dorothy, wasn’t easy.
“It was a difficult transition in terms of adjusting to life without a voice. I could no longer do simple things like say ‘hello’, pick up the phone to talk to someone or ask for an item in a shop. I had to quickly adjust and my family was and remain so supportive.
“This cancer was life changing in terms of the sudden transformation and, then, having to pick up the pieces and try to move on.”
Unbelievably, Dorothy’s second encounter with cancer was just around the corner.
“Following the throat surgery, I had to undergo six weeks of radiotherapy and I travelled every day to Belfast for this treatment.
“During the final week of treatment, prior to discharge, I was sent for some routine X-rays. I was so looking forward to finally putting all of the previous months’ surgery and treatment behind me and to focus on my recovery. However, this was not to be the case.
“On the second last day of my treatment, I was brought in to see the oncology consultant to be told that I had a shadow on my lung with looked like cancer. This was devastating news - both for me and my family.
“My hospital consultants had indicated that the lung cancer situation was very serious and that there was a high chance of it being linked to the throat cancer. They were not holding out too much hope and my family was told to expect the worst.”
Dorothy says that, at this particular time, the support of her sister, Maureen, a nurse, and her husband, Neil, a cancer consultant - who live in England - was immense.
When the results came back, Dorothy was told it was a primary cancer and that it was operable.
“In a strange kind of way, both myself and my family found this news to be a cause for celebration. It was unexpected. I was told by my consultants that it was extremely rare for this situation to arise - the odds of this being a primary tumour were very, very low.”
Dorothy had an entire lung removed in May 2003.
The last eleven years have, Dororthy admits, been a “tough journey” - but one that has been made so much easier thanks to the support and love of family, friends and medical professionals and, crucially, says Dorothy, her devotion to prayer.
She says Greg McBride, ENT specialist (Altnagelvin), Alastair Graham, thoracic specialist at Royal Victoria, Belfast, Nurse Michelle Doherty and Rev. Aidan Mullan, have all played key roles in her survival and recovery.
“Having had cancer, I take each day that I am alive as a bonus,” she says. “Staying positive is, I believe, one of the best medicines available.
“I hope people who have received a diagnosis of cancer will look at me and see that, despite being through the mill, I have got my life back on track and I’m still here living my life to the full.
“When I see doctors or consultants who have never met me before and they ask about my medical history, they often remark: ‘You shouldn’t be alive’. But here I am today. Living my life and enjoying every day of it.”
Dorothy Gillespie - an inspirational lady and living proof that people can, indeed, triumph over adversity.