Indigestion is a fact of life for many people, but prolonged symptoms should not be ignored as they may be a sign of something more sinister.

ohn Murrin (59) can attest to this as in July 2019, he went, on the insistence of his wife, to see his GP about the recurring heartburn and indigestion which had bothered him for years. And as subsequent tests revealed, it did turn out to be something a lot more serious than an upset stomach.

“I was having problems with indigestion for a long time, particularly when I went to bed at night as it would flare up really bad as soon as I lay down,” he says. “I didn’t do anything about it as I presumed it was just heartburn and although it was getting worse rather than better, I’m not much of a man for the doctor, so I just put up with it.

“But I’m a deep-sea fisherman and due to quotas, our working season is September to March, so two years ago, just before I was due to go back to sea, my wife made me promise to make an appointment to have my stomach checked out before I left. I eventually gave in to her and went to see the GP who referred me on for tests. 

“I wasn’t at all worried as I had been a bit fond of the drink when I was young and even though I gave up when I was 28, I thought that maybe I had done a bit of damage from drinking spirits.

“I was also a very heavy smoker and used to smoke 60 cigarettes a day up until 10 years ago, so I also thought that could have had something to do with it.”

John, who lives in Donegal with his wife Carmel and two daughters Ciara and Niamh, went to Sligo hospital two weeks later for a colonoscopy and following this, was referred to St James’s Hospital in Dublin to see a specialist.

“After I had the colonoscopy, the doctor told my wife that he was a bit worried and wanted me to go to Dublin to see Professor Reynolds at St James’s Hospital,” he says. “He didn’t use the word cancer, but Carmel knew he was concerned so she began to worry also. I didn’t think too much about it and went off to the hospital for other tests and scans. I was called back a fortnight later for results and was absolutely shocked when I was told that I had cancer of the oesophagus.

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John’s daughters Ciara and Niamh Murrin

John’s daughters Ciara and Niamh Murrin

John’s daughters Ciara and Niamh Murrin

John’s daughters Ciara and Niamh Murrin

“I have a very strong history of cancer in my family. My brother died last year from bowel cancer at the age of 55, even though he was the fittest man you could ever meet. My father (a fisherman) died at 67 two months after being diagnosed with cancer of the throat, and my sister died at the age of 60 when it was discovered that she had seven tumours in her body — she was also extremely fit and healthy without a pick of weight on her.

“But even though my family had a very hard time with cancer, it still hadn’t occurred to me that I might have it.

“I was called back again to get the full diagnosis and I don’t think Carmel and I will forget it for the rest of our lives. It was just so terrible to have to wait to be called into the consulting room to find out whether or not I would be able to be with my family for much longer. It really was the hardest time and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But when the door opened and we were called in, I was given the news very quickly. And while I did have cancer of the oesophagus, there was some positive news as 60pc of the problem could be treated while the other 40pc couldn’t.”

Elated with the nugget of hope, he told his daughters the news and encouraged them to help him get through the ordeal by trying to be as positive as possible.

“Once Professor Reynolds told me that he could do something for me, I felt a weight lift as there was hope,” he says. “Carmel and I took the bus back home and when we got back, we called the girls into the kitchen and told them I had cancer. I said that we should do all our crying now and when we were done, we’d wipe our tears and get on with things as we would need to be as positive as we could and would get through it if we all had the same outlook. I had read quite a bit about cancer and just knew that we had to be on the same wavelength.

“I also have great faith and this kept me strong throughout the whole ordeal. I represented the Fishermen of Ireland in 1979 when the Pope came to Ireland, and he gave me some lovely rosary beads which were a great source of comfort.

“I was told that I would have surgery to remove part of my oesophagus, and this would be followed by five and a half weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. This was quite tough, but I didn’t miss one session. I stayed in Dublin in my sister’s and brother-in-law’s apartment and made sure to go for a walk every day after treatment to help keep me fit physically and keep my spirits up.”

After his treatment finished in October 2019, John returned home to recuperate and just a few months later, Covid hit and, as he was quite vulnerable, he and his family cocooned for the best part of the year.

But in January 2021 he began to feel ill again and was worried that the cancer was returning. However, after undergoing tests, it was discovered that he had Covid-19 and then was later diagnosed with a condition which is a side effect of his cancer.

“I was hoping to finally be able to get back to work after the cancer and then the pandemic hit,” he says. “We, as a family, took Covid very seriously and didn’t have anyone in the house all year. It was a very tough time for us all and as well as losing my brother, just six weeks later, my mum died in a nursing home which was really awful. We couldn’t even kiss her goodbye or hold her as she was dying — it was absolutely terrible.

“Then in January, I thought I had cancer again as I couldn’t eat and felt very weak. I went to see the doctor who told me that I had to have a Covid test even though he said it was highly unlikely I had it. So I got the shock of my life when it came back positive and then the three girls got tested and they all had it too. We just couldn’t believe it and didn’t know how we had caught it. But thankfully it wasn’t too bad and we got through it fine.

“However, I still wasn’t feeling great and felt very weak a lot of the time. So I called Professor Reynold’s office who told me to come in for an appointment and after visiting him and having some tests, it was discovered that I had something called dumping syndrome which happens to 4pc of people who have had oesophageal cancer. It can lead to blood sugar levels going up and down and in order to get on top of it, I would need to change my diet. So the head dietician at St James’s put together a plan for me and helped me to adapt to a new diet. And thank God it has really helped, and I am feeling much better, getting stronger all the time and I hope to be able to get back to work very soon.”

There is a happy ending to John’s story, but the father-of-two says if it wasn’t for his wife, he would not have gone to the doctor and may not be here to tell the tale. He is encouraging others to visit their GP if they have any concerns and get treatment started sooner rather than later.

“I have my good days and bad days but I’m feeling very well at the moment, thank God,” he says. “I’m taking things on a day-by-day basis and continuing to get better all the time, but I know how lucky I am. If I had left things for another month or two, it may have been too late for me to have surgery or treatment.

“So my advice to others is if you have any symptoms at all, don’t sit around like I did and hope it will go away, go to the doctor straight away as it could make all the difference.”

Oesophageal cancer: what you should know

⬤ There are 450 new diagnoses of this aggressive cancer each year in Ireland.
⬤ Irish oesophageal cancer rates are among the highest in Europe.
⬤ Barrett’s oesophagus is a common condition and a key pre-indicator of potential oesophageal cancer.
⬤ The Barrett’s Registry, established in 2010, links six hospitals across Ireland and tracks the progress of approximately 8,000 at-risk patients.
⬤ Symptoms include difficulty swallowing, persistent acid indigestion, heartburn, and reflux.
⬤ To find out more visit ocf.ie

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