When Cian Smith was a teenager, he had a bright future in front of the GAA. The now 33-year-old was tipped for a place in Roscommon’s U21 football team when a totally unexpected diagnosis threw his sports career and, for a time, his life, totally sidetracked.
One evening in August 2007, I was coming home from training and my dad was inside talking to someone, ”he says. “I said hello, I had a bit of a joke and the man, Nash Patil, who happened to be an ENT consultant, told me I looked pretty hoarse. I had always sounded like that and it was okay, but he asked if I could come see him in his clinic so he could check it out.
“Just to be polite I agreed, but as soon as he left I told my dad it was completely unnecessary because there was nothing wrong with me, and as far as I was concerned. , that was the end of the story. But two weeks later I received a meeting letter in the mail, and although I still thought it was unnecessary, my father encouraged me to to go because he said Mr. Patil was a lovely man and it wouldn’t hurt. I said very well and continued, expecting a quick check before I was sent home.
But things didn’t go as planned and Cian, who is married to Michelle and has two children – Cillian (3) and Grace (1) – learned that more testing was needed. “When I went to see Professor Patil, he put a camera in my nose and throat which showed redness and swelling, so he referred me to Professor Aongus Curran at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin” , he said.
“I thought it was a complete waste of time and really didn’t want to go, but I still went for a biopsy, before being sent home.
“I thought it was that, but I got a call a few days later telling me that I needed to do another one. At this point I thought it was a bit too much and asked my dad if I really needed to go. He said I should, so after playing a game on Sunday we headed to the Monday fixture – to make matters worse when we got there we were told there was no of bed for me so I would have to come back on Tuesday so we stayed overnight and came back the next day.
Cian, who works as an auctioneer alongside his father in the family business – Smith, Kelly, Scott – underwent a biopsy in the morning and as soon as it was over he was eager to get out of the hospital and resume his life.
But the doctors had other plans. “I was brought back to the ward after the procedure and wanted to get dressed and go, but a nurse told me I had to wait because the doctor wanted to see me,” he says. “I was a little irritated and I remember seeing my mother and wondering what she was doing there, but I didn’t ask her because I just thought she had come to Dublin to do a little shopping and called me to see me.
“Looking back, I should have known why she was there, but I was only worried about getting out. Then around 5 p.m. Professor Curran came to me and told me that they had found an infection in my cells. I must have sounded indifferent as he kept repeating that they had found something and it was serious – again I didn’t record what he was saying and when he realized which I did not understand, he made it clear that I had throat cancer.
“I was completely shocked. My mother was visibly upset, and then I was told that my family already knew about it, but they wanted to wait for the doctor to explain to me since I was only 19 and it was totally unexpected. I was told I had a tumor on my left vocal cord, and it was stage three, so it was pretty aggressive.
“My first reaction was that I wanted the cancer to go away right away, so I told the doctor to get rid of it as quickly as possible, which involved surgery. All I wanted was to remove cancer cells from my body as soon as possible. “
On October 31, 2007, the young man underwent a hemi-laryngectomy (a procedure for removing one side of the larynx) and after spending several weeks in hospital, returned home before undergoing an intense course of radiotherapy.
“Apparently I spent over seven hours on the operating table and beforehand my parents were warned that I might not be able to do it,” he says. “I was basically opened up and now I have a scar from the back of my ear to the front of my throat. I was in intensive care for 10 days, then I moved into the ward and said I wouldn’t be home until Christmas. But I was so well taken care of and got out of there at the beginning of December. My recovery, according to the doctors, depended on my level of fitness (as I was part of an All-Ireland winning team), I never smoked, drank very little alcohol and was in good physical shape. .
“So I was in good physical health, and for the most part, apart from a few times when I felt very sorry for myself, my mental health was good too, because from the start I was positive and ready to go. the fight ahead. I owe a lot of this positivity to the support I received from my parents, my three younger brothers, my girlfriend (now wife), Michelle and my friends.
After the operation and the six-week radiation therapy course, the auctioneer returned to Roscommon, and although he had recovered very well and was determined to return to the football field (even scoring a goal in the county finals in October 2008), his breathing was worked, and he would need further surgery in the years to come.
“After the operation and treatment, I would come back all the time for check-ups – initially it was weekly, then monthly, three months, six months and so on,” he says. “I had recovered well from the operation and luckily the cancer was removed, but I had difficulty breathing, so in order to improve my quality of life, I had a tracheostomy cannula inserted in 2014.
“It still changes every six weeks and although I can’t play football anymore, I manage our senior team and play golf regularly. Of course, having a hole in my neck affected my life, but I made adjustments. For example, when I take a shower I wear a waterproof bib to make sure there is no water inside and I also succumb to lung infections a few times a year, so as you can Imagine, life was quite stressful during the height of Covid. because I was considered to be at very high risk and I had to be extra careful.
“But, from the start of my diagnosis, I was careful to remind myself that there is always someone worse off than me, so it’s important to recognize that and be as positive as possible. And I can’t say enough good things about (the late) Professor Curran and the entire ENT team at St Vincent, who have been amazing from day one.
Hospice Hospice Week begins September 12, and along with his father Mike, president of the Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation, Cian is keen to raise awareness both about the need to see a doctor if someone has concerns and to fundraise. for Roscommon Hospice. , which will launch in October.
During the 2020 lockdown, the family, along with the entire Roscommon team, did their part to help with long-standing local efforts to establish a hospice in the area, killing themselves and cutting their hair, running, by swimming and organizing coffee mornings to raise the necessary funds to ensure the opening of the hospice this year.
“I got involved with the hospice 10 years ago through John, a good friend and past president,” says Mike. “It was also because of Cian’s disease that I wanted to give something back. The past two years have been very exciting for the construction of Roscommon Hospice, so this is a fantastic time to get involved.
Luckily, Cian has a happy story to tell, and he encourages others with suspicious symptoms to seek help. “Hindsight is a good thing and when I look back I can see that I was a lot more tired than I should have been,” he says.
“Before my diagnosis I felt absolutely devastated in the last 15 minutes of a game and always blamed it on not being fit enough – now I know it was because I I had cancer so I would advise anyone worried about their health to get it checked out.
“Plus, for someone with cancer, be sure to ask questions and get all the help and advice from support groups and experts. Of course, you can research things online, but nothing is quite as good as getting information from people who know what they are talking about or who have been through it themselves.
“I feel very lucky to have been diagnosed when I was and to have had all the support I had from my wonderful wife, family and friends.”
Donations can be made to hospice.ie/donations/donate-online/