Can­cer sur­vivor who still has to pay the price

When Nina Mur­ray met her hus­band in 2003, she had no idea how much would hap­pen to her in just a few short years

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health - Ar­lene Har­ris can­ lym­phire­

It started when I had a smear test in 2008 be­cause my GP was con­cerned that I was hav­ing some un­usual bleed­ing

In the past decade Nina Mur­ray’s life has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion. In 2008, she was di­ag­nosed with cer­vi­cal can­cer and while for­tu­nately it was caught early, she un­der­went a gru­elling treat­ment pro­gramme, life-al­ter­ing surgery and although she sur­vived her or­deal, has been left with lym­phoedema – a con­di­tion which causes the limbs to swell way be­yond nor­mal pro­por­tions.

When she met her hus­band Tony at the end of 2003, the civil ser­vant had no idea how much would hap­pen to her in just a few short years.

“Tony and I met in Dublin on New Years’ Eve and have been to­gether ever since,” she says. “We got en­gaged in De­cem­ber 2007 and got mar­ried in May 2009, but a lot hap­pened in be­tween those two dates.

“It started when I had a smear test in 2008 be­cause my GP was con­cerned that I was hav­ing some un­usual bleed­ing. I had to wait three months for the re­sults which re­vealed that I had CIN3, which de­notes the high­est level of cell change. So I was re­ferred for a colonoscopy, but at the time I wasn’t too wor­ried as I had read that most peo­ple with this diagnosis go on to have laser treat­ment to re­move pre-can­cer­ous cells – so I thought that would be the end of it.”

But the Wick­low wo­man also un­der­went a biopsy which pre­ceded a CT scan, MRI and a PET scan – the re­sults of which re­vealed that she did in­deed have can­cer which seemed to have spread be­yond the cervix. This news came as a dev­as­tat­ing blow which was com­pounded when she was ad­vised to have IVF treat­ment and egg-freez­ing in or­der to give her some chance of con­ceiv­ing in later life.

“The early scans looked like it had spread to be­hind my bowel and pelvic wall and at that stage the treat­ment plan was ra­dio­ther­apy and chemo­ther­apy,” she says. “We were re­ferred to the fer­til­ity con­sul­tant to see about go­ing through an IVF cy­cle to make em­bryos to freeze.

“How­ever, a fi­nal PET scan seemed to rule out a spread and it looked like the tu­mour was con­fined – but it was high into the cervix and close to my womb – which meant that I would need a full rad­i­cal hys­terec­tomy in or­der to en­sure there was a clear mar­gin.

“So on Novem­ber 23rd, 2008, I had a rad­i­cal hys­terec­tomy where my womb, my cervix, the mus­cles around it, one-third of my vagina and 23 lymph nodes were re­moved.”

Thank­fully the oper­a­tion was a suc­cess and all of the can­cer­ous cells were re­moved. Mur­ray be­lieved she could now get on with her life and a few months later, she and Tony got mar­ried.

And while much of her honey­moon was spent con­va­lesc­ing and get­ting used to some of the “chal­lenges” that arose af­ter surgery, the new bride was con­fi­dent that, de­spite the oper­a­tion ren­der­ing her un­able to con­ceive, her health trou­bles were over.

But not long af­ter re­turn­ing home, hav­ing no­ticed some swelling in her left leg, her GP sus­pected lym­phoedema, which can be a side ef­fect of can­cer.

“There were no ser­vices avail­able for treat­ing lym­phoedema, so I went to see a phys­io­ther­a­pist who broke the news to me that I did in­deed have the con­di­tion and my leg would never re­turn to nor­mal,” says the 37 year old. “I would have to stop wear­ing heels, shav­ing my legs, tak­ing hot baths and would have to wear made-to-mea­sure com­pres­sion tights every hour of every day for the rest of my life.

“I felt an­gry, re­sent­ful, vic­timised and scared. It was a lot to take in.”

Eight years af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with lym­phoedema, Mur­ray’s life is very much de­fined by her con­di­tion and she be­lieves much of her dis­com­fort could have been avoided if she had known in ad­vance that hav­ing sur­vived can­cer; she was at risk of de­vel­op­ing the disor­der.

“Since we have been mar­ried my big leg has been a big deal,” she says. “My body doesn’t do the same as it did be­fore my surgery – I can’t have chil­dren and some­times other bod­ily func­tions are a chore. Also my body doesn’t look the same – it isn’t the body I had when my hus­band asked me to marry him and I don’t like the way I look – can­cer has caused all of this.

“How­ever, my leg needn’t have been this big. If I had known what lym­phoedema was, what to look out for, that wear­ing com­pres­sion gar­ments – ei­ther a pre­cau­tion or as soon as swelling ap­peared – and if I could have af­forded, in those early days, to pay for the treat­ment I needed – in the ab­sence of pub­licly funded treat­ment be­ing avail­able to me – my leg wouldn’t be this big and maybe I could wear short dresses and strappy san­dals and get on with my life.

“As it is I will never lie on a beach or even walk on a beach in a swim­suit again and we won’t ever con­tem­plate go­ing on a sun hol­i­day again. On top of that I can’t even cross my legs. I can’t travel long dis­tances in a sit­ting po­si­tion and even walk­ing from my bed to the shower can be painful when the fluid be­gins to flow into my lower limb.” De­spite ev­ery­thing she has en­dured, Mur­ray has no choice but to get on with life – lym­phoedema has be­come part and par­cel of her ev­ery­day rou­tine. And while it is too late to do any­thing to change her con­di­tion, she does urge oth­ers to be aware and seek help if at all wor­ried about any symp­toms.

“Nowa­days I mois­turise my skin every day to avoid it break­ing but I can’t shave or wax in case I nick my skin,” she says. “I carry an­tibi­otics ev­ery­where in case I start hav­ing symp­toms of cel­luli­tis – a skin in­fec­tion – and rou­tinely wrap my legs in high com­pres­sion mul­ti­layer ban­dages to help loosen and move the fluid. I also need to rou­tinely have man­ual lymph drainage ther­apy to try and stop ad­di­tional fluid ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in my leg.

“This is my life now and I have to try to look

be­yond the swelling be­cause if I don’t, I can’t expect any­one else to. But I would en­cour­age any­one who is wor­ried to find a spe­cial­ist with ex­pe­ri­ence, and to con­nect with other peo­ple liv­ing with the con­di­tion.”


Nina Mur­ray: di­ag­nosed with cer­vi­cal can­cer she un­der­went a gru­elling treat­ment pro­gramme.

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