How one man’s story helped locals deal with rare blood cancer

One Saturday, around this time last year, local man John O’Hara was due to attend a wedding with his wife Angela. But when he went to get out of bed that morning he found that he couldn’t.

Pain in his back had been worsening over the previous weeks and had now reached the stage where an ambulance was required to bring him from his home in Kilkenny West, about seven miles outside Athlone, to Tullamore Hospital.

“On the way there, the paramedics asked me to measure my pain on a scale of one to ten and I said it’s definitely a ten,” recalled John. “It was the worst pain I’d ever had.”

When her husband was in hospital, Angela thought about an article she had recently read in the Westmeath Independent. It was an interview with Coosan resident Liam McManus who suffered from a rare cancer of the blood known as myeloma.

Angela felt that the symptoms of myeloma, as outlined in the article, were similar to the ones John was experiencing.

“She put two and two together and realised that I could have the same thing,” explained John.

When the results of blood tests were returned, they confirmed what Angela suspected. It was myeloma.

Because myeloma is not widely-known, this week has been designated as the second annual Myeloma Awareness Week. On Friday last, John and Liam were among those who travelled to the Mansion House in Dublin to attend the launch of the awareness week by RTE’s Miriam O’Callaghan.

Every year approximately 220 people are diagnosed with myeloma in Ireland. The cancer affects plasma cells found in the bone marrow. Myeloma has no known cause and cannot be cured, though it can be treated.

A retired farmer and father of nine (eight girls and one boy), John was aged 75 when he was diagnosed with myeloma late last June. He underwent an intensive course of treatment in Tullamore under Dr Gerard Crotty, one of a small number of experts on myeloma in Ireland.

” I was in terrible pain but the staff in Tullamore were brilliant to me. When I was discharged at the end of July Mr Crotty told me I was making good progress and he said the next three to four months would tell a lot,” said John.

Thankfully his health has improved considerably since then.

“When people ask me how I am, I say I’m an awful lot better than I ever hoped to be,” he commented.

He was in a wheelchair after leaving the hospital last summer but is now able to walk unaided. The levels of the cancer in his system are currently 80% lower than they were at the time of his diagnosis.

His initial treatment continued for seven months and at one stage he was taking 30 tablets a day, but that’s now down to a single tablet each day. He also visits Tullamore Hospital every four weeks or so to receive a bone-strengthening treatment. “I got terrific care in Tullamore and from the palliative care nurses at home. A physiotherapist in Roscommon started me off on exercises, and by degrees it got better. I walked with a stick for ages and now I can go anywhere I like.

“I’m at a stage now where I was able to fill turf into a trailer in the bog – that shows you the improvement.”

John said one of the factors which helped his condition to improve was keeping a positive attitude and talking to supportive people.

Liam McManus was diagnosed with myeloma over four years ago, at the age of 49. When he learned that John had the disease he got in touch and the pair have been in contact since then.

“When Liam called out to see me… you couldn’t calculate what that meant to me,” said John. “He talked about his experience of myeloma. Talking to somebody about it gave me confidence in myself. Being able to talk about your problems is very important.”

Liam stated that when his myeloma was diagnosed he didn’t know anybody who had it, but in recent years he’s been attending monthly meetings of a midlands myeloma support group in Tullamore.

As a result of the Westmeath Independent article last year he received calls from people with myeloma both in the midlands and other parts of the country.

“When you are diagnosed it’s a great help to meet people and to know that you can get better,” said Liam. “The bottom line with myeloma is that there’s no cure for it. You have to keep that in the back of your head. But there is treatment and it can be contained.”

A builder by trade, Liam’s health has been good enough to allow him continue working. “Even though there’s a recession I’m busy for some reason or another!” he said.

“Every fourth week I get a bit of treatment but that’s a small price to pay to be alive. My health is not as good as it was, naturally, but it’s good enough. I just have to take things that bit slower.

“There might be people without cancer, without myeloma, who mightn’t be as well as John and me.

“On a day like today you couldn’t but be well,” he said, referring to the glorious sunshine which shone through the windows of his home in Hillquarter, Coosan.

Liam said that if people are suffering from pain in their back, shoulders or bones, they should think about getting tested for myeloma. Other symptoms include bone fractures, fatigue, low blood counts, recurring infections, kidney problems and high levels of calcium in the blood.

John wanted to publicly thank the medical staff he’s been dealing with, and he said he’s received great support from his family and friends like his parish priest in Tubberclair, Fr Seamus Mulvany.

He recalled an conversation he had in hospital last summer which underlined the importance of trying to keep one’s spirits up, even during the toughest stages of cancer. His myeloma had been diagnosed at the time and it was just a few months before his daughter Kathleen’s wedding in October.

“There was a doctor there in Tullamore who was from Norway. She came down to my bed one evening and asked me how I was,” he recalled.

“I said ‘I’m in awful pain. I don’t know will I ever be able to move properly again’. And she said to me, ‘you’ll do the jitterbug yet!’

“Those few words raised my spirits so much – and on the day of Kathleen’s wedding I got out on the dancefloor for a few minutes!”


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