Last year, Ciaran Byrne was happy with his lot – he got married, his business was doing well and future prospects were good. In short, life was rosy.
However, towards the end of 2018, the software developer began to feel unwell and when he and his new wife headed off on the trip of a lifetime, his symptoms worsened and he decided to get a medical check-up on his return – but he was not prepared for the outcome.
“Last year was a busy for me – in May I married Denise, my partner of nine years, in Rome, I was busy getting projects over the line in my software development company and was winning new business,” says Ciaran.
“But I started to have a general sense of felling unwell around September or October when I picked up a kidney infection, which took two courses of antibiotics to treat.
“Then, during December, things escalated with what I thought was a cold or flu – I felt tired, had a bad cough, a metallic taste in my mouth, my complexion was pasty white and my weight dropped unexpectedly.
“Friends and family noticed and told me I looked terrible, so I visited my GP who prescribed a course of antibiotics and steroids and put it down to a winter bug, combined with the stress of the run-in to Christmas.”
On January 2 this year, Ciaran set off on honeymoon to South Africa and the Maldives and although he still felt unwell, believed that a little bit of sunshine and some relaxation would see him on the mend.
“I thought the trip would be the perfect tonic and while my condition did improve, I still felt fatigued just going for simple walks and my taste was still off,” he says. “But I put it to the back of my mind and focused on enjoying the sunshine while making a promise to myself that if I still felt unwell when I got home, I would go for a full check-up. On the plane back I came to the realisation that I still had a metallic taste in my mouth and didn’t feel 100pc. So when we arrived back in Dublin on January 20, I booked myself into the Charter Medical Clinic in Smithfield for a full health screen.”
His appointment included full blood tests and the Dublin man was told that he would receive results in a fortnight – however, the clinic got in touch a lot sooner than that.
“My appointment was in the morning – I arrived home about lunchtime and two hours later I received a call from a doctor in the Mater Hospital who informed me that they had received my bloods and that abnormalities were found,” he says. “I was told to go straight to A&E, which of course set off alarm bells in my head, and I headed straight in. On arrival, Denise and I were taken to a private room and the haematology consultant arrived and delivered the news that I had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
“From that moment my journey began and I didn’t leave the Mater for another 30 days. I was admitted immediately to the haematology and oncology ward and my chemotherapy treatment began on Friday, January 25.”
And so the entrepreneur began a gruelling round of treatment which also saw him endure several setbacks and a bone marrow transplant.
“The first cycle consisted of 10 days of intensive chemotherapy, followed by a neutropenic phase when my bloods recovered,” he recalls. “This lasted for 20 days during which I had numerous temperature spikes and developed a severe gut infection, which was treated with a strong course of antibiotics. But at the end of the first round, I was given the good news that I was in remission and was discharged for a break at home.
“My second round of chemotherapy began on March 4 and consisted of eight days chemo and followed a similar pattern to the first round, where I was neutropenic for 20 days. This time it went better because I was in remission from the leukaemia – although I still had several temperature spikes, which required a course of antibiotics. I was discharged from the Mater Hospital on April 4. But AML carries with it a risk of relapse and to prevent this, a patient can have more chemo or a bone marrow transplant, which was decided to be the best course of action in my case.” Two of Ciaran’s brothers (Declan and Jude) were found to be suitable donors and eventually Jude was chosen as the donor during the procedure in St James’ Hospital in April of this year.
“Under the care of my consultant, Dr Catherine Flynn, on April 23, my 40th birthday, I began the final part of my journey, which consisted of seven days of intensive, round-the-clock conditioning chemotherapy which essentially wipes out your bone marrow,” he says. “Then I received my new stem cells from my brother and was discharged from St. James on May 18.
“I still attend St. James for follow up appointments (and will do for the rest of my life), initially once a week, now once a fortnight and eventually it will be once a year. But together with the excellent treatment in the Mater hospital, the transplant has given me a new, long term outlook on life.”
Ciaran says while the treatment and transplant have transformed him physically, his family and friends are the reason he made it through.
“The transplant has given me a brand new immune system but it will take up to 12 months for it to fully develop so I’m more open to infections than most and have to avoid crowded places, be careful of what I eat and avoid people with infections like colds and flu,” he says.
“I am now exercising several times a week, to build back up my physical strength and take part in a chronic illness rehabilitation exercise programme, called ExWell, which is run by Dr Noel McCaffrey. I’ve also taken time out of work and hope to return next year.
“Throughout everything, I was carried through by the unwavering support of Denise, my family and friends. Denise really was there ‘in sickness and in health’ and never left my side. And I’m really lucky that I come from a family of seven and all my brothers and sisters, together with my mam – my father passed away – visited me daily and did whatever they could to make my treatment more comfortable. I also had so many friends visiting that the nurses had to put up a sign restricting visitor numbers.”
Currently on the mend, the leukaemia survivor says it is important to be positive and not to be afraid to ask for help.
“In my opinion, there are three things which will get people through a diagnosis like I’ve had,” he says. “Firstly, you must place your trust in your medical team. Secondly, you should reach out and ask for help – you will never lose as people will rally around and carry you through the tough times. And lastly, remember that it’s OK to have bad days, it is a tough journey but try to smile when you can, be positive and don’t let your illness define you.”
Dr Anne Fortune, Consultant Haematologist at the Mater Hospital, says it is not certain why leukaemia occurs but treatment is available, however it may not be curable in older patients.
“In the majority of cases it occurs de novo with no known risk factors – but small numbers of patients may have had a preceding bone marrow disease or received chemotherapy or radiotherapy for another disease,” she says. “Benzene [an organic chemical compound] has been associated with AML and higher rates are also seen in smokers.
“The symptoms may include pain, bruising or bleeding, fatigue or infections. And treatment for younger, fit patients includes high-dose chemotherapy which may be followed by a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. They require support with red cell and platelet transfusions and also need antimicrobial prophylaxis to prevent infection.
“Older patients are given less intensive chemotherapy with the same supportive care and prognosis depends on age and the individual risk factors for each patient – but it is not curable in older patients. There is very little a person can do to avoid getting AMl – however, a healthy lifestyle and the avoidance of tobacco is advised.”
The facts: About leukaemia
⬤ Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow, usually affecting the white cells.
⬤ A mutation happens in the cell turning it into a leukaemic cell or blast cell. This cell cannot function normally, so it continues to grow and takes over the bone marrow. This leads to reduction in healthy blood cells such as platelets, red cells and white cells.
⬤ There are four types of leukaemia – acute, chronic, myeloid or lymphoid.
⬤ Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a rare cancer affecting approximately 80 new patients in Ireland per year.
⬤ It can happen at any age but is more common over the age of 60. It affects men and boys more than girls or women.
Health & Living