8th March 2017

Paula Kernaghan

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“My mum had a persistent cough. This was not a cough which had been with her for weeks or months; it had been years. Despite this, she avoided doing anything about it, continuing to maintain it was just the tail-end of a cold. Looking back now I think she was probably frightened that the years of smoking may have caught up with her.

I tried on numerous occasions to get her to go to the doctor but she would always refuse, stubborn as she was. I finally managed to get her to talk to her dad, my grandad, who was a doctor. He told her the same thing – visit a GP! She finally listened.

Everything then happened so quickly. Mum was diagnosed with lung cancer. I wasn’t shocked at the diagnosis. What did shock me was the prognosis – it was incurable. She was given 12-24 months to live.

Mum was stoic. She didn’t let cancer hold her back and her final few months were probably her happiest because she was able to leave an organisation that treated her badly and concentrate on her own wellbeing.

Sheilagh shares the memories of her mum, Paula

She threw herself into gardening and music. She became passionate about making things grow. We’d find her watering the garden in her dressing gown at 5:30am!

In the end, my mum only lived nine months but we made the most of every moment. For her 50th birthday, our family flew over from Ireland to watch her perform ‘The Snowman’ in a concert with the Wirral Symphony Orchestra. Mum was passionate about music and got a real buzz from playing in live concerts. Dad took her shopping for a new dress and hired a private dining room for us all in Leasowe Castle. It felt like we were in Downton Abbey!

I only wish we could have had time to create more memories. I wish mum had gone to the doctor sooner. If she’d gone when the cough first started, there may have been something they could do. They may have even been able to save her.

Avoiding the problem doesn’t make it go away but facing it could help prolong or even save your life.”

Fear is something we hear a lot. People are scared. That’s understandable; the statistics around lung cancer do not make for pleasant reading; 38% of patients live for over a year, only 10% survive for over 5 years while just 5% make it to 10 years.

But the main reason why survival rates are so low because too many people are diagnosed late. If lung cancer is caught early, there are many more treatment options available. You may even be able to have surgery. Individuals with very early stage lung cancer have up to a 73% chance of surviving for five years or more, giving you much more time with family and friends:

My mum was much braver than I was. I developed severe anxiety at the thought of losing her. I could barely leave the house and had to postpone my university studies. Throughout her illness, mum continued to support me.

When she died, I went back to university and achieved a first class degree. I know she’d be really proud. I just wish she could have seen me graduate. It’s very bittersweet.”

Sheilagh now volunteers at her local Maggie’s centre, sharing her story to help other people affected by cancer. Last year, she also abseiled down the Liverpool cathedral, raising money for Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation:

I was absolutely petrified but after receiving £1000 in sponsorship I couldn’t exactly back out! The scariest part was waiting for my turn at the very top. The instructor told me to step down backwards onto a small pipe and then a photographer came along and told me to wave at the camera. I wasn’t too keen about letting go of the rope! Little did I know but a photographer from the Liverpool Echo was also at the bottom so my bum was in the next edition!

My nerves stayed with for the first half of the abseil. The wind blew me around in circles which made me very aware of the huge drop below me but, after getting the hang of it, I really, really enjoyed it. The views were spectacular. My boyfriend was on the other line so we were able to chat and laugh as we raced to the bottom. He won even though I went first but I like to think it’s just because he’s heavier than me!

I would love to do it again. It’s definitely something my mum would have loved to. Unlike me, she was a bit of an adventurer!

I want there to be more funding for lung cancer research so I’m proud my sponsorship will fund quite a few hours. Despite it being the biggest cancer killer, I’ve learnt it only receives 7% of research funding. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of the public perception of lung cancer and its links to smoking. My mum smoked. She was of that era when smoking was the social ‘norm’.

But just because people smoke, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve an equal chance of survival. We need to continue to educate people about the dangers of smoking and even ban it all together. That’s why people like my mum are dying too young.”