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
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,