A brother’s love

Michael Cooper didn’t know if he’d live to see his son grow up, says Joy Or­pen, af­ter he was struck down by can­cer for a sec­ond time. But he was saved by his brother’s bone mar­row

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - NEWS - Ir­ish Can­cer So­ci­ety, 43-45 Northum­ber­land Rd, D4, see www.can­cer.ie The National Can­cer Helpline, freep­hone (1800) 200-700.

When Michael Cooper was 16 years old, he sur­vived can­cer. Never for a sec­ond did he imag­ine that he would find him­self back in an al­most iden­ti­cal sit­u­a­tion be­fore his 30th birth­day.

Yet he sees what hap­pened to him as an op­por­tu­nity to help oth­ers fac­ing sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

Michael, 34, is the mid­dle brother of three boys who grew up in Water­ford.

Theirs was an idyl­lic child­hood where sport dom­i­nated. “It was great,” he says. “My broth­ers and I now live close to each other and are still very good friends.”

How­ever, his per­fect child­hood came to an abrupt end in 1995 while play­ing golf with his broth­ers. “By the 10th hole I had to lie down as I had no en­ergy,” he re­calls.

None­the­less, Michael wasn't de­terred from go­ing to the Gaeltacht to brush up on his Ir­ish.

That's when he be­gan wak­ing up soaked in per­spi­ra­tion, while also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dry cough. He at­trib­uted his symp­toms to the par­tic­u­larly hot sum­mer. But when Michael no­ticed a lump in his neck, his GP sent him to hos­pi­tal where an ul­tra­sound was done.

An at­tempt to do a biopsy failed be­cause of the sud­den swelling of lymph nodes in his chest.

Things were de­te­ri­o­rat­ing pretty quickly. “It was early Septem­ber and I was shocked to find my­self in in­ten­sive care, when I should have been go­ing back to school,” he says.

In­stead, he was moved to the Mater Hos­pi­tal in Dublin.

There, Michael learned that he had non-Hodgkin lym­phoma, a can­cer of the lym­phatic sys­tem.

The Ir­ish Can­cer So­ci­ety says that the lym­pa­tic sys­tem is an im­por­tant part of the im­mune sys­tem. It com­prises a net­work of ves­sels and glands re­spon­si­ble for mov­ing lymph, which is a clear liq­uid con­tain­ing white blood cells (lym­pho­cytes), which are cru­cial in fight­ing in­fec­tion. In non-Hodgkin lym­phoma, th­ese lym­pho­cytes start to grow in an ab­nor­mal way. Th­ese ex­tra cells may then start to col­lect in the blood­stream or in the lymph nodes (lymph glands) caus­ing them to swell; lymph nodes are lo­cated in the armpits, neck and groin, among other ar­eas. This is what hap­pened to Michael. “By then, my en­ergy lev­els were on the floor,” he re­calls. He needed six cy­cles of chemo­ther­apy. He would spend five days hav­ing chemo­ther­apy in hos­pi­tal; then five days at home. He would then re­turn to hos­pi­tal un­til his white blood-cell count, which would have dropped to dan­ger­ously low lev­els, had been el­e­vated. Af­ter­wards he would go home again — if pos­si­ble — un­til his next round of chemo­ther­apy.

Even­tu­ally Michael was dis­charged to be­gin the very slow road back to re­cov­ery. As time went on, he stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, fol­lowed by a Mas­ter’s in busi­ness stud­ies at UCD.

In 2002, he met and even­tu­ally mar­ried Joanne Daly from Ty­rone. In 2008, their son Micheal was born. “That was so great,” re­mem­bers Michael. “Be­cause when you've had chemo you won­der if you'll be able to have chil­dren.”

The Coop­ers were now happily set­tled in Ra­toath, Co Meath, while Michael had a job in sales and mar­ket­ing which he loved. But yet again fate was in­ter­ven­ing. “The week of my 30th, I was train­ing for the Belfast marathon. One night I found I couldn't run far,” he says. “When that hap­pened — again, shortly af­ter my birth­day — my GP sent me for X-rays. When the ra­dio­g­ra­pher asked for an­other X-ray, I knew it [the can­cer] was back.”

Michael soon learned he was now suf­fer­ing from acute lym­phoblas­tic lym­phoma (ALL), which, ac­cord­ing to the Ir­ish Can­cer So­ci­ety, af­fects white blood cells and bone mar­row.

This time he needed three cy­cles of chemo­ther­apy, to­tal body ir­ra­di­a­tion, fol­lowed by a bone mar­row

‘At one time I was hav­ing blood trans­fu­sions ev­ery sec­ond day . . . I said glibly that it gave me time to catch up on day­time TV’

trans­plant. It was a ter­ri­ble shock.

“I said glibly it would give me the op­por­tu­nity to catch up with day­time tele­vi­sion. I was try­ing to put a brave face on it, but there was such huge dis­be­lief,” Michael says.

As the treat­ment pro­gressed Michael's white blood cell count of­ten reached dan­ger­ously low lev­els. “At one time, I was hav­ing blood trans­fu­sions ev­ery sec­ond day,” he re­calls.

His im­mune sys­tem was com­pletely shot, so he was con­stantly get­ting se­ri­ous in­fec­tions. That year he and Joanne were in­vited to nine wed­dings, but only man­aged to at­tend one be­cause of his bouts of in­fec­tion.

Michael says there were times when he won­dered if he would live to see his son grow up. But his sto­icism pre­vailed.

“You have to put those kinds of thoughts aside and batten down the hatches,” he says. For­tu­nately his com­pany sup­ported him all the way. “That was a mas­sive load off my mind,” he says.

Michael says the ex­pe­ri­ence was tougher sec­ond time around.

“It took much longer to re­cover and half way through, the can­cer spread to my spinal fluid.” Fi­nally, he had his bone mar­row trans­plant thanks to his brother Tom, who was a “bril­liant match”; the trans­plant was done at St James's Hos­pi­tal, in Dublin.

“Ef­fec­tively, you end up with a new im­mune sys­tem,” says the happy re­cip­i­ent with a sparkle in his vivid blue eyes.

That was fol­lowed by sev­eral months at home, tak­ing anti-re­jec­tion drugs.

This was one of the hard­est times for Michael.

“I wanted to get on with my life, but I didn't have the strength. You couldn't go out in case you got an in­fec­tion. And be­cause I had to take steroids, I had trou­ble sleep­ing.”

Even­tu­ally, Michael went to a coun­sel­lor and he found the ex­pe­ri­ence ther­a­peu­tic.

“It was re­ally pos­i­tive for me in terms of my pos­i­tive growth. I would ad­vise any­one who has had their lives turned up­side down to talk to a pro­fes­sional coun­sel­lor,” he says. “It's

not good to put your­self un­der pres­sure to bounce back as if noth­ing had hap­pened.”

Michael is now a vol­un­teer with Sur­vivors Sup­port­ing Sur­vivors — an ini­tia­tive of the Ir­ish Can­cer So­ci­ety. Their aim is to “give sup­port, prac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion and re­as­sur­ance”.

All of the vol­un­teers have had can­cer so they are well qual­i­fied to of­fer sup­port.

“We try to nor­malise a very un-nor­mal sit­u­a­tion,” ex­plains Michael. “This is not about the med­i­cal as­pects of can­cer, it's about em­pa­thy.

“The Ir­ish Can­cer So­ci­ety puts us in touch with some­one, then have a chat over the phone and we can of­ten re­as­sure them about what they are go­ing through.

“It re­ally helps to know you are not alone in terms of what you are feel­ing. I wish I had known about this ser­vice.”

To­day Michael is again get­ting on with his life. He is de­lighted to be in­volved in sport again, thanks to his now glow­ing good health.

Michael Cooper with his wife, Joanne, and their son, Micheal

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