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'My GP told me they were after finding a large mass in the chest. I knew it was lymphoma'

Mairanne Walsh talks to The42 about recovering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to help her camogie club Mooncoin to junior Kilkenny success.

AN ONCOLOGY NURSE was rubbing her neck one day at work, when her hand brushed off a small lump on her collarbone. 

IMG-20211221-WA0006 Marianne Walsh pictured with her family after Mooncoin's county title success.

It was tiny in shape, a barely visible ridge on her skin that she really had to dig for to get a better look at it. Marianne Walsh, the owner of the little lump, was prepared to pass it off as an insignificant mark she happened to find.

There were no alarming symptoms at the time and even the position of the lump was off. If it was on the side of her neck, her training as a nurse would have alerted her to look into it. But the location on her collarbone was a good sign that she was in the clear.

However, some chance happenings forced Walsh to do a double take.

Last month, she came off with five minutes to go in the Kilkenny junior camogie final, having done her part to help Mooncoin to their first county title since 1988. There was a loud cheer ringing around Callan grounds as Walsh left the field to a standing ovation.

After the game where Mooncoin were eight-point victors over Piltown, a reporter from KCLR 96FM approached the Mooncoin manager looking for a player who might be good to chat to; someone with a good story. 

Walsh was put forward for interview, and the reporter was told that the standing ovation was because she had been sick this year.

And as the microphone was switched on, Walsh decided this was a good time to open up about her recovery from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

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Walsh first discovered her lump on 9 November last year. She went for her flu jab the following day where she got talking about her recent discovery to a colleague who specialised in haematology.

“She asked me a few questions,” Walsh begins in conversation with The42, ”like if I had had weight loss, tiredness but I’ve been working through a pandemic so everything was mad.

“The only thing that kind of struck her was I had a really bad itch in my leg. That’s when she said to go get checked by the GP. I was seen by my GP the following Monday and got a chest x-ray done that week. And I got the results within seven days.

“I got the results on 24 November and my GP told me they were after finding a large mass in the chest and I knew exactly what’s coming when I heard that. There was no, ‘It could be this, it could be that.’ I knew it was lymphoma.”

A CT scan and biopsy would later confirm that Walsh had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. From her training as an oncology nurse, she knew that this form of cancer had a high recovery rate of between 95% and 96%.

But while the prognosis was positive, she still had a challenging recovery ahead of her. Of course, she did regain enough of her good health to be in a position to line out for Mooncoin in this year’s county final, but there were difficult hurdles to mount on the road to that point.

Already armed with plenty of information about her condition, Walsh was able to make meticulous plans before undergoing treatment. Perhaps you can know too much when you’re an oncology nurse on the receiving end of a diagnosis, but Walsh was far happier to be informed than to be staring at a blank canvas with no real understanding of what was to come.

“It was horrific,” says Walsh when asked about how the treatment impacted her.

“I think knowing too much when the treatment started, I was like, ‘Oh this drug causes this.’ I think a lot of it was psychological with me, and obviously you could be sick with chemo anyway.

“But I was sick within minutes of starting treatment. And even now, I’m still nauseated and still have to go for different treatment plans. But I’m nowhere as sick as what I was between January and June. It was like a six-month hangover.

“These things come with treatment and you’ll do anything to make sure you get better.

“I suppose with my personality, it suited me that I knew exactly what I was getting into. If I didn’t work in the field I’m in now, I would have been a mess. I was able to plan everything.

“I planned to go for my IVF treatment in Dublin. I had planned to get my PICC [Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter] line put in before starting treatment. I had planned my hair. I knew all these things were coming down the line and I didn’t want to be in the middle of treatment, things going wrong and the lads getting stressed because they can’t get a vein on me or my hair falling out.

“I’d rather just have it sorted and try to make it as bearable as possible for me. It obviously didn’t go as planned but I got through it in the end.”

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The approach to tackling Walsh’s lymphoma was well marked out. She underwent four sessions of chemo in March, at which point a scan was conducted to check if the treatment plan was working.

If all signs are looking good, and they were in her case, they can then proceed to the final eight installments of chemo. Walsh had one more scan the month after she finished her chemo for a final check of her condition, before sending her on for follow-up clinics.

Despite the devastating impact of the treatment on her body, Walsh was able to continue playing camogie throughout her recovery. In fact, it was one of the first things she asked her GP when she was first told about her diagnosis.

As it turned out, she didn’t miss a huge chunk of the season. The tight Covid restrictions in the early stages of 2021 meant no-one was playing when Walsh was taking her first steps towards recovery.

That bought her some time to build up her strength and get back on the pitch when sport was starting to open up again.

“People would be looking at me going, ‘Sure it’s only an amateur sport, she’s not even county level.’ But it’s the only time I’m actually ever clear-headed because I have one thing to focus on at any time: either to get the ball up to whoever or make sure the girl I’m marking doesn’t get the ball.

“They’re the only two things I could be thinking of. So, to be told you can’t play the thing that you love or that you can’t do the thing that keeps you sane, it wasn’t nice to be told that but sure I didn’t listen, so I’m my own worst enemy.

“We weren’t really training from January to May, so I was doing my own training with my personal trainer once a week.

“And then I used to go up to his gym just before camogie started. I went to all the camogie trainings, even if I was sick. I literally had the PICC line in one arm, the hurl in the other. It was something to be laughed at.”

Mooncoin, according to Walsh, have been closing in on a junior title for the last number of years. Marginal defeats have been the only thing holding them back from making the breakthrough.

Heading into the final against Piltown, Walsh thought five minutes of gametime would be a reasonable amount to aim for. That, in her mind, would be a satisfying way to round off a year that had wiped her.

But she multiplied her output by 11 as she clocked an incredible 55 minutes to help her club end a long wait for a title. She was also nominated for the junior Player of the Year award in Kilkenny.

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IMG-20211221-WA0005 The victorious Mooncoin team.

“In June, July and August, I couldn’t even walk,” Walsh remembers.

“I was still very weak. I was barely able to run a lap in one go, so in July, I thought I needed to be re-graded and that I wasn’t going to be able to make the first team this year. That’s why I got a couple of matches with the second team and in October, the manager said they thought I was ready.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get onto the first team, never mind get nominated for Player of the Year. I didn’t even think they did things like that. But sure look, it was lovely to be recognised for what I’ve achieved this year.”

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On the day we speak, Walsh has just returned to work in the Waterford University Hospital, the same place where she received her treatment. It was also her birthday in recent days.

There was a bit of a homecoming for her when she came back, although many of her colleagues questioned the sanity of resuming work on a day when others would love to be off celebrating.

But normality is the best birthday present that Walsh can think of.

It’s also the day before the one-year anniversary of receiving her diagnosis: 10 December. She doesn’t have any plans to mark the occasion, preferring instead to privately acknowledge it and move forward.

And as she goes on, she can now offer something to her patients that she couldn’t offer before — advice on how she handled her own experience with cancer.

“I can and it’s gas because a couple of the patients have been saying that my hair is lovely and short. I would just say, ‘Oh I didn’t actually mean to have it like this, at least it’s growing back. I was in your position a couple of months ago.’

“And they’d be like, ‘Oh my God. Well, how did you manage this symptom, how did you get over this?’ I suppose it’s nice that I was actually able to relate to them a little bit and was able to give them tips on how to manage it.

“I suppose they kind of felt that this girl actually knows what she’s talking about it, she’s been through it. No disrespect to anyone else working [in oncology] and we were just saying it the other day that I just have a different insight. It’s not a better insight, it’s just a different perspective on things.

“I suppose having lived through it, people might listen your advice as opposed to people who give you advice but haven’t lived through it themselves. Sure look, we’re only human. 

 ”I’m delighted to be back helping people. It’s nice to be able to give back what the girls gave to me.”

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