A young Donegal woman who was diagnosed with lung cancer aged just 35 has shared her story in the hope of raising awareness of the disease.

Tracy Byrne from Glencolmcille also wants to encourage people faced with a cancer diagnosis to make use of supports from the Irish Cancer Society, as she did, and also, to combat the stigma associated with this type of cancer.

After almost six months of continuous back pain, in early 2019, Tracy Byrne, then aged just 35 years old, pushed her GP to refer her for an MRI.

She said “I had to continue pushing the doctors to refer me for an MRI as the pain was getting so severe and I knew there was something wrong. Up to this point, it had been suspected that the pain was from stress, a muscular issue or sitting at my work desk for long periods of time.”

Tracy was sent for an MRI and received the results through her GP a couple of days later.

“I got a call on Monday evening to say come into the GP the following morning for the results of the MRI. I thought finally I’d get a bit of clarity as to what’s going on because the back pain was not normal and I knew something wasn’t right. By this stage, the pain was now spreading to my shoulder.

When I got into the doctor—I’ll always remember the look on her face—she told me they found a lesion on my back and they’d also found one on my lung. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had no symptoms in my lung so I couldn’t understand this. My GP asked if I’d somebody to go with me, that she had rung ahead to the Mater and I was told to get there as quick as I could and they’d be expecting me.”

“Here I was going to get results for what I thought was routine back pain and within hours I was told that I have lung cancer with a secondary lesion in my spine.”

After receiving the news, Tracy and her husband went straight to the Mater Hospital where she met with the Triage Nurse followed by the Doctor.

She continues “When I met the doctor, he asked me what I had been told. After I explained what my GP had said, he sent me straight in for an x-ray. Not long after, he came back and told me that I have lung cancer and while it needed to be confirmed for certain by further tests, they knew what it was based on the x-ray.” Tracy was booked in for further tests and by early afternoon, she was told she could go home.

Tracy Byrne

“Here I was going to get results for what I thought was routine back pain and within hours I was told that I have lung cancer with a secondary lesion in my spine. Getting my head around lung cancer was really difficult. I had always (mistakenly) assumed that lung cancer only affects older people who had smoked for decades.

“I was a non-smoker and in my 30s. It didn’t make sense. In the days after my diagnosis, as I tried to get my head around everything, I was waiting on the phone to ring and for somebody to say ‘we made a mistake’ and I just had normal back pain. But that call never came.”

Tracy didn’t want to deliver this news to her mum and sister over the phone.

“That evening after the hospital, my husband told his parents and family in Dublin who live close by to us. They were shocked but so supportive to both of us. When the weekend came, my husband and I set off for Donegal to tell my mum and sister in person about my diagnosis. We lost my dad to stomach cancer in 2008 and now we were going to go through all of this again.

“It was one of the most difficult car journeys of my life. The shock and devastation when I told them quickly turned to support and comfort. We told my nephew after this and contacted my brother in Australia. My aunties, uncles and cousins—we have a big family—all came around to see me over that weekend and offer their support for the tough road that lay ahead.”

It all moved very quickly from this point, explains Tracy.

She added “I had several hospital appointments with the lung specialist and I also had my lung biopsy procedure in the week proceeding my initial diagnosis in the Emergency Department. Two weeks after my diagnosis was confirmed, I was at home in bed and I couldn’t move with the pain.

“My husband rang an ambulance and I was taken to Connolly Hospital. I spent a week in Connolly Hospital where they told me that I needed spinal fusion surgery and I was transferred to the Mater Hospital for another week for this surgery to be performed. The surgery involved steel rods and pins going into my back for support and would need up to 6 months of a recovery period. I was put in a brace for the week before the operation, and I was told there was a risk of paralysis. It was a scary and surreal time.

“Every day at the hospital, it seemed like I was getting more information to process. It’s so easy to get lost in it all as you try to keep up. I’m a very positive person, but with all the setbacks, it was becoming harder to stay positive, then finally, we received great news.”

“I was so relieved and overjoyed to receive this news from my oncologist. This gave me more treatment options than I initially thought so it was a huge relief.”

A few days after Tracy’s successful spinal fusion surgery, her oncologist told her that her biopsy results were back and that her type of lung cancer was a non-smoking lung cancer caused by EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) mutation in her genes and that targeted oral therapies were available to treat her type of cancer.

“I was so relieved and overjoyed to receive this news from my oncologist. This gave me more treatment options than I initially thought so it was a huge relief. It gave me so much hope after a very tough and traumatic few weeks”.

Tracy was started on her targeted therapy the very next day. Although she suffered with severe side effects for the first year or more, the oncology team managed to get these under control and she continues on this treatment to this day.

“For the first 18 months, I was dealing with quite a lot of side effects which was extremely tough. In particular, I was dealing with severe skin reactions to the treatment. Over time, the oncology and dermatology teams found the right treatments for the skin issues and the other side effects I was dealing with which meant that I was able to remain on my targeted therapy treatment”.

As Tracy’s treatment has continued, she has also undergone radiation treatment in the last year or so.

She revealed “In September 2022 and May 2023, I had to undergo radiation treatment. Thankfully, the radiation treatments both times were a success and my last scans were good. Unfortunately, I have been dealing with some persistent side effects over the last 12 months from these treatments. These side effects have been quite difficult both physically and mentally. I think this is a side of cancer treatment that people may not be aware of. The daily side effects that cancer patients continue to live with can be extremely difficult on the person”.

“I cannot thank her enough for her support and advice. It’s an amazing service provided by the Irish Cancer Society”.

Tracy Byrne

Since her diagnosis, Tracy has made use of a number of Irish Cancer Society supports and services and is encouraging anybody dealing with a diagnosis to do likewise.

“I remember at the start going into the Daffodil Centre in the Mater Hospital and speaking with this lovely woman who was so reassuring. She outlined the different supports that the Society has to offer. Since then, I have found the website really useful and I have followed the various campaigns run by the Irish Cancer Society.

“I have used the Volunteer Driver Service on several occasions when myself or my family have been unable to drive me to my appointments and I honestly can’t speak highly enough of this service – the people who do it and give up their time to get people like me to and from appointments are so kind and generous with their time. I’m so grateful to every single person who has ever driven me.”

“Another service I’ve used, which has been invaluable, is speaking to one of the Society’s cancer nurses, Roseleen. She has been there to offer guidance and advice, in particular during my radiation treatment and with the related side effects that I’ve been experiencing. I cannot thank her enough for her support and advice. It’s an amazing service provided by the Irish Cancer Society”.

While Tracy is sharing her story to raise awareness and signpost others to available supports and services, she also wants to tackle the stigma surrounding lung cancer.

“I’m sharing my story because I want to help the lung cancer community overcome the stigma that comes with this type of cancer. When I was diagnosed, I felt so isolated and alone due to the stigma attached to lung cancer. I couldn’t find any specific support groups or services for lung cancer patients. It felt like it was the cancer that nobody wanted to talk about. I found this so upsetting. As there were no specific lung cancer support groups that I could find, it led me to become one of the founding members of the Irish Lung Cancer Community, a group that I am so proud to be a part of”.

“Lung cancer patients deserve the same empathy and access to treatments and research as other cancers. This is not about putting different cancers in competition with each other for funding, however it’s clear that lung cancer is severely underfunded compared to others. This means that there are less treatment options being developed for people diagnosed with lung cancer.

“The lack of funding for lung cancer research has a direct impact on the survivorship of patients. We need to focus on becoming more empathetic towards people who are diagnosed with lung cancer, learning the risk factors, identifying the symptoms to help with early diagnosis and to highlight that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer as most people are not aware that you can get lung cancer regardless if you are a smoker or a non-smoker.

“Hopefully, if we can focus on these important factors instead of attaching blame to anyone who is unfortunate to receive a lung cancer diagnosis, we will be able to improve the lives for all lung cancer patients in Ireland.”

New research shows that almost one in every three people don’t know any signs of lung cancer despite it being the leading cause of cancer deaths in Ireland.

More than 1,800 people die from lung cancer each year, with the majority of lung cancers (60%) being detected at a late stage, when they are much more difficult to treat.

Kevin O’Hagan, Cancer Prevention Manager at the Irish Cancer Society, says: “Six in every 10 lung cancer diagnoses in Ireland are detected at a late stage (Stage 3 or 4). Unfortunately, when somebody is diagnosed this late, it is so much harder to treat patients and get them on a pathway to recovery.”

Meanwhile, worrying new research from the Global Lung Cancer Coalition shows that 29% of Irish people don’t know any signs and symptoms of lung cancer. Symptoms of lung cancer can present as:

o Difficulty breathing

o A cough that doesn’t go away or a change in a long-term cough

o Repeated chest infections that won’t go away even after antibiotics

o Wheezing

o Feeling more tired than usual

o A hoarse voice

o Coughing up blood-stained phlegm

o Pain in your chest, especially when you cough or breathe in

o Loss of appetite

o Weight loss

o Swelling around your face and neck

o Difficulty swallowing

As well as creating public awareness around the symptoms of lung cancer, there are barriers to healthcare which stop people from attending their GP which urgently need to be addressed. Evidence shows that cost, people minimising their symptoms and difficulties in accessing GP appointments can prevent people from accessing care. The Irish Cancer Society has also long advocated for the introduction of a national lung cancer screening programme.

Dr. Patrick Redmond, GP and Associate Professor in General Practice at the RCSI says: “As a General Practitioner, I see first-hand the critical difference that early detection of cancer can make. Recognising the signs — such as persistent cough, unusual breathlessness, or unexplained weight loss — and acting quickly could be lifesaving. It is vital that we address the barriers to healthcare access and empower our patients with the knowledge to seek help promptly. I urge everyone to be attentive to their lung health and to consult their GP if they notice any concerning symptoms.”

Throughout November and into December, the Irish Cancer Society will be hosting a series of Lung Cancer Awareness Road Shows and is calling on the public in these locations to come along, ask questions and meet with our cancer nurses. People can also check out the lung health checker online.

Anyone with questions or concerns about cancer can contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line on Freephone 1800 200 700 or supportline@irishcancer.ie