Zoe Daniels Howard.

‘People are afraid to say the word’

Zoe Daniels Howard was just 16 when she discovered a lump above her right collar bone.

The Castlelyons native had recently recovered from severe glandular fever but had no idea that the illness had greatly increased the risk of something far worse.

In late July 2020, after undergoing a series of rigorous tests, Zoe was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Her diagnosis came as Covid-19 numbers continued to soar around the country, a major concern for Zoe considering that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, a crucial part of the body's ability to fight infection.

After turning 17 and with the Leaving Cert looming the following year, Zoe began her treatment which would continue until late February 2021. In her battle with cancer, Zoe lost her hair, her eyelashes, her eyebrows, got the shingles, got pneumonia, and developed sepsis, but she never let it get the better of her and in late March 2021, she was given all clear from cancer.

Although finding it tough to settle back into school, and still experiencing issues with her memory and concentration as a result of the chemotherapy, Zoe went on to ace the Leaving Cert. She started her course in biological and chemical science at UCC last Monday.

Recalling her journey, Zoe describes it as an “out of body experience” that has changed how she sees the world forever.

“There was a huge dose of perspective came with this. I was going into Leaving Cert, my last year in secondary school, after spending a year of knowing what my enemy was and that this could have killed me,” Zoe told the Cork Independent. “I had no immune system, nothing at all, I was completely wiped. It changed the way I thought about everything. Going into Leaving Cert, I knew my health was more important than some exams at the end of the year.

“When mam and dad told me, I don't think it ever really settled with me. Even now, if someone brings it up, I'm quite matter of fact about saying it to people.” With September being World Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Zoe says there is not enough conversation happening around cancer in youths and children.

According to Childhood Cancer Ireland, on average over 350 children, adolescents, and young adults are diagnosed with cancer in Ireland every year. Zoe says her diagnosis had different effects on different people in her life and that she herself knew very little about her condition before her diagnosis.

“When I went back to school, if cancer was mentioned or if I mentioned it myself even, there was a shift in the atmosphere of the room. It just went a bit awkward, a bit quiet, a bit tense. People are afraid to say the word, they tiptoe around it,” says Zoe.

“Initially, it made me feel very uncomfortable because I almost didn't want to say it myself, even though I had it. If someone else can't deal with a word or can't deal with a conversation, that's on them.”

While it is estimated that there are over 6,000 adult survivors of childhood cancer living in Ireland today, childhood cancer is the largest disease killer of children in this country.

For that reason, for the second year running, Childhood Cancer Ireland and CanTeen Ireland hosted the Childhood, Adolescent, Young Adult Cancers & Survivorship Conference in Cork last Saturday to provide a platform for patients, survivors, and their families to connect with health care professionals and researchers to ensure that the voice of the lived experience is central to policy and practice.