‘I beat death at four - I wasn’t going to let cancer finish me off’

Bernadette Healy
Bernadette Healy

When Bernadette Healy was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1999, a nurse told she “must have been at the back of the queue when they were handing out good luck” after looking at her notes.

For the Derry woman had already battled for her life once before - after her nightdress caught fire as she reached for an ornament from the mantelpiece when she was just four years old.

So extensive were her burns that her parents were told she was unlikely to survive more than an hour - “But I was a fighter,” Bernadette said. “I just kept on fighting”,

And although she went through years of skin grafts and plastic surgery - she was able to go on and live a full and happy life - which was most certainly not prepared to give up when she was told she had cancer in 1999.

In her 40s, Bernie said she had noticed a change in her bowel habits. “Something just wasn’t right,” she said, adding that while she wasn’t overly concerned she decided to talk to her doctor just to be safe.

“At the time we put it down to irritable bowel, and I was happy enough with that but shortly after I found that I started to run to the toilet more and more.”

Her GP did blood tests initially which showed that something was amiss. Bernadette was referred immediately to consultant Robert Gilliland - but even then she said she “never thought of cancer for a second”.

“He did an examination, and used a scope. When he was finished he asked me did I want to go and get dressed and he would discuss his findings. I told him he better just tell me there and then.”

It was then Bernadette was told Mr Gilliland had found a large mass firmly fixed to her bowel.

“I sat there, thinking about what he told me, while he made calls booking every test he could think of.

“And then I went back a week later for the results. I’ll always remember the sun was shining so brightly but I thought I was on my way to death row.”

There was good news and bad news - the cancer appeared to be contained and would be operable, after six weeks of radiotherapy to shrink the tumour.

It was then time for Bernadette to under the knife for the surgery which would save her life.

“It was funny,” she said. “When I came round and was being wheeled to the High Dependency Unit, all my siblings were there - like a guard of honour. I remember asking if I was in heaven,” she laughed.

Ten days later, Bernadette was told that more cancer cells had been found close to her tumour and she began six months of chemotherapy - with her family taking her in to make sure she was well looked after.

“I’m not going to say it was easy - there were times when I thought ‘why me?’ - I found the radiotherapy tough going. I lost three stone and I remember lying across the back seat of a car coming down from Belfast, wrapped in a blanket and throwing up.

“But I do consider myself lucky.”

Perhaps Bernadette knows just how lucky she is because her younger sister, Theresa, succumbed to cancer when she was just 19. In fact of the 10 McDonagh siblings - five of them have faced a battle with cancer. Her sister Veronica Barr - was one of those - and she found herself battling bowel cancer just as her sister had done before her.

“After Bernadette, and then our brother, went through bowel cancer we all received letters inviting us for colonoscopies,” Veronica said.

“But if I am honest I was dreading it - so when I was told it could take a few months for the appointment to come through, I was delighted.”

But after a period of time when Veronica travelled back and forth to England she started to suffer from stomach upsets.

“I wasn’t running to the toilet, but I was throwing up - and it reached the stage where I couldn’t eat without being sick - so at that stage I phoned to see when the colonoscopy would be held and was told it was just a week away.

“I just became sicker and sicker. I was doubled over with pain, with a hot water bottle at my stomach,” Veronica said, and eventually before her appointment came about she was admitted to hospital for tests.

Like Bernadette before her, Veronica was also found to have a large mass in her bowel.

She would go through the same surgery her sister had, just seven years before and face six months of chemotherapy to make sure her cancer was eradicated.

Having been through the experience herself - and watched her brother and sister go through it, Veronica said the key message to get across was “not to hesitate if you think something is wrong”.

“In different times cancer was a death sentence,” she said, “but it’s not necessarily so now.

“Treatments are getting better all the time and the earlier you face the problem, the quicker you can deal with it.”

Bernadette added that, especially with the likes of bowel cancer, people should not let their embarrassment get in the way going to the doctors.

“You won’t be the first person the doctor has examined and you won’t be the last,” she said.

Both women now officially have the all clear. Bernadette has been cancer free for 10 years and Veronica for two years.

The two women are delighted to both enjoy a good quality of health and they have both faced their battles they consider themselves lucky. Their families now have access to regular bowel screening and the future looks bright.