Seamus shares his cancer journey to encourage others to pursue health concerns
A well-known local man, who spent months in hospital battling tongue cancer, has urged people to ‘pursue’ any health concerns and ‘get them seen to.
Seamus Carey, from Greencastle, underwent a seven hour surgery and 38 sessions of radiotherapy plus chemotherapy in hospital in Dublin, following his diagnosis last year.
He suffered severe side effects, had to re-learn to talk, eat and swallow and wasn’t allowed any visitors as he was hospitalised in the middle of Covid 19 restrictions. However, his strength of character, as well as the support of his family, friends and community and his faith that included prayers to Father Tom O’Gara and Sister Claire Crockett, saw him through. His team of doctors are more than happy with how he has been recovering and Seamus (61) is now sharing his journey through cancer and treatment in a bid to help others who may find themselves facing their own.
He was encouraged to do so by a ‘brilliant’ nurse he met at St Luke’s Hospital, a fellow Inishowen woman called Noeleen McDaid, from Culdaff, She, as well as all the staff in St Luke’s and St James’ hospital in Dublin were instrumental in guiding Seamus through his journey to recovery.
Seamus, a mechanic, told how he had a lump on his tongue for a couple of years, which became sore from ‘time to time.’ He went to the doctor but ‘not much was happening’ and a biopsy in Belfast came back clear. However, following the biopsy, the sore never healed and in June last year, Seamus sought a second opinion from Dr James McDaid in Letterkenny. Tests later revealed he had cancer. Doctor McDaid referred Seamus to Altnagelvin Hospital, where tests were taken and from there, he underwent a further biopsy at Ballykelly Hospital.
On June 27, to Seamus’ shock, he was told he had cancer of the tongue. It was a very difficult time and Seamus was referred to St James hospital Dublin. On August 12, Dr Paul Lennon and staff in the Anne Young ward oversaw a seven and a half hour operation on Seamus’ tongue.
“They had to open the whole way around the front of my neck and took the tongue out through there, to operate on. They can’t operate inside the mouth. “The cancer was two and a half centimetres deeper into the tongue, so the tongue was split down the middle and half a centimetre was taken away. They took the lymph nodes too but they came back clear and the cancer hadn’t spread.
“I had PET scans and MRIs as well and they recommended 38 radiotherapies and chemotherapies. Oral cancers are relatively rare and Seamus said it can be more common in those who drink and smoke, both of which he has never done. “I had an accident years back where I busted the tongue, so I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, or if the first biopsy annoyed it.”
Recovery from the surgery was extremely tough and Seamus could not swallow, eat or talk. Seamus’ radiotherapy and chemotherapy began in October and he said this was the toughest stage of his journey. “I had to get a type of mask made in St. Luke’s that went over your face when you’re getting treatment and a stent kept your mouth open. The treatment was directed at spots on your tongue and both sides of your neck.
“It was very tough. But the nurse that spoke to me last week said that, by me talking about this, it could help other people, as a lot of people don’t want to speak about cancer or treatment. And even though it was very hard, it helped me and I’m on this side of it now.” Seamus was travelling to Dublin for treatment up until the second week, when his throat became unbearably sore and he became very sick.
“Everything that could go wrong did. Because I wasn’t fit to eat and was in a lot of pain they decided to admit me to St Luke’s. That was the week after Halloween and I was there until January.” On December 14, Seamus was sick, as he was every morning but began to feel a bit better and thought he was ‘turning a corner.’ But, when a nurse called Carol Ann, from Cavan, took his blood pressure, she realised something was wrong and the ‘panic got up.’
Seamus’ blood pressure and heart rate were ‘off the scale.’
“There were a heap of doctors and nurses with different machines. I honestly thought that was it for me. And I had no family there or anything. But, part of me was fairly peaceful as well. They got me on the bed and I don’t know how long it was, it seemed like a long time, but the blood pressure started to go down.”
It was decided that Seamus would be transferred to St James Hospital, which specialises in heart treatment and he spent a number of days there. It was found that his blood pressure and heart rate likely rose as a reaction to the stress of the treatment and he was given the go-ahead to go back to St Luke’s hospital.
That day was one of a number of turning points in his recovery. “A nurse said that she was going back to St Luke’s with me, in a taxi. I asked her if I could try and walk out as I’d been in a wheelchair for nearly a month. She told me if I felt that I could, to go on ahead.
“That was the first time I walked and I felt really good after walking, I knew once I was walking I’d be okay. I wanted to do it and it felt great. I walked into St Luke’s too and they were so happy to see me walking.”
Seamus is full of praise and gratitude for the staff of St Luke’s and St James’ hospitals.
“They were first class. They couldn’t do enough for you. From the people who came into you with food to the porters and the nurses, doctors, surgeons, every single one of them.”
He credits the nurse, Carol Ann, with saving his life by recognising ‘something was wrong, even though I felt like I was grand.’
Seamus remained in hospital after finishing treatment as he had a feeding tube and was meeting with speech therapists and physiotherapists to support him in recovery. He returned home to Greencastle on January 11 and ‘ate and swallowed as much as I could. It wasn’t easy but I did my best. I was eating things like yoghurts and porridge and doing what I could.
And then on what was the week of my birthday, around the 21st January, I found a bit of an improvement and started to get better and better.
“Noeleen kept telling me I would eventually turn a corner and she was right.”
Seamus started going out walking with friends and recently climbed Sliabh Sneacht in Inishowen. He also purchased a bike and cycles a lot now too. He is thankful to everyone who supported him. “A lot of people prayed for me and got Masses said. And many people text me when I was in hospital. When I first heard I had cancer, I was very emotional. I didn’t know what was ahead. Before I saw the surgeons I went to Father Tom O’Gara’s grave and also Sister Claire’s in Derry. And, do you know, I think I started to accept it better after that. “I’ve been to the graves a few times since. I was weaning off a painkiller and was sore. I went up one day to Sister Claire’s grave and I’ve had no bother with it since.”
It has been ‘onwards and upwards’ for Seamus, who encouraged everyone to take control of their own health. “If you have a lump around your mouth that you’re worried about, get it seen about.
And if you’re not happy, get a second opinion - pursue it. “If I hadn’t pursued it I would have been worse now.” Seamus returns to the hospital every so often for checkups and doctors were ‘very happy’ with him at his most recent one. Everything he has been through has been ‘hard to get’ his head around but, despite the difficulty of the journey, he is grateful for where he is at now. “If I could thank all my family and friends everywhere for all the prayers, Mass cards, those who lit candles and sent me prayers and holy oil. “It’s hard to name everyone in Inishowen, Donegal and Ireland for all their support.