By Shelley Marsden
A YOUNG Irishwoman that has spent the past year in America, receiving surgery to enhance her quality of life, might have to return home early as funds are almost run dry.
Mary Philbin, 27, from Galway, has come a long way since she was diagnosed with a rare cancer eight years ago, but has confessed she may have to interrupt the surgeries that might allow her to eat again.
She spoke to the Irish World from her temporary home in Carolina, where she has been with her mother Eileen since November 2012: “I have come so far. We made the journey here by car, to the bottom of Ireland, to Fishguard and to Southampton to get on a ship (I had no choice with side effects from treatment), and then a train from New York to Carolina.
“Having crossed an ocean and so many miles of land in my weakened state, I can only be hopeful, defiant and determined that I won’t have to return home again. But I haven’t got this far on my own, without the help of my family , my friends and the general public and for everyone’s support I will be forever grateful. I would ask your readers to support me if they can – but most importantly, to keep me in their prayers.”
It all began in 2004 during her Leaving Cert. year in school, when Mary began experiencing severe pain, extreme fatigue and constant hunger pangs. During that year, she made several visits to doctors, consultants and dentists – as she was also experiencing pain in her teeth. Eventually she was given a CT scan.
At that time, she was in college in Cork studying Social Care and loving every minute of it. She said: “I was young and free and I had the world at my feet – or so I thought. I had been relying on painkillers to get me through each day and throughout the course of the year my health had been deteriorating and I was increasing my pills.
“Towards the end of that college year, while many friends had stayed in Cork to study for end of year exams, I had already made up my mind to travel home to Galway for that week to ‘study’ – but truthfully, I knew I wasn’t feeling well.
“I instinctively knew something was wrong. I never did sit those exams because it was during that week that I got a call from the Galway University Hospital telling me to come in that they had the results of the CT scan, and I knew that wasn’t good.”
Mary was eventually diagnosed with Nasalpharyngeal Carcinoma, a rare malignant tumour in her throat and was consequently treated with chemo and radiotherapy, which began in August 2005.
Not long into radiotherapy treatment Mary lost the ability to eat, and for three months was unable to talk. During this time she was taking all her nutrition through the stomach tube as she was unable to swallow. Her radiation treatment was stopped intermittently during the course of what was supposed to be seven weeks as her mouth was in such a bad way. Seven weeks became seven months.
The good news is that Mary is now cancer-free, but her treatment has left her with some severe side effects. She cannot eat, her airways have been compromised and she is lives on a liquid diet.
Mary was told prior to coming to the US that liquid was seeping into her lungs, which would eventually lead to lung damage. Her health was deteriorating rapidly. This is when she began to do her own research online, and stumbled across a doctor based in North Carolina who had had successful outcomes operating on patients with medical histories similar to Mary’s.
The Galway woman’s family decided they would get her to the States to be operated on by that same doctor. Before leaving Ireland, an appeal was made to the HSE in the hope that they would cover the cost of Mary’s treatment in the US, but it was not successful. The only other option was to fundraise to cover costs.
This they have done, and she has had two surgeries so far. But she may need two, if not three further surgeries – with the aim that she can eat real food again – but they don’t think they have enough money to pay for them and are desperately trying to raise 50,000 dollars for future surgery.
She explained: “If all those surgeries could be completed, that would bring me all the happiness in the world. For the better part of eight years, my life has been on hold because I have spent so much time in and out of hospital.
“It has been a little bit like ground-hog day in terms of having to go in and out of hospital, but I try to laugh in the face of adversity. I have never given up and I will keep trying because I am a believer; it is my faith, my family and my friends that have kept me going.”
For anyone wishing to make a donation can give money online via the website maryphilbin.com. People can also donate to the Mary Philbin treatment fund at Bank of Ireland, Manorhamilton.