FINANCE Minister Michael Noonan has given the Limerick Leader a detailed account of the cancer treatment he underwent after discovering a sarcoma on his shoulder, which was removed following an operation last week.
Speaking exclusively to this newspaper from Leinster House before standing in for Taoiseach Enda Kenny for Leaders’ Questions this Wednesday afternoon, Mr Noonan revealed he had 25 radiotherapy sessions to reduced the size of the lump, five a week for five weeks, so that his surgeon could “take it out in one piece”.
Expressing “amazement” that the news did not break before he issued a statement on Wednesday night, he said he had not intended to make his skin cancer public, but was forced to do so when his office was contacted by a tabloid newspaper.
“I mean basically it’s a private matter,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gone public on this at all only it leaked and one – one organ in the media, we’ll say – were going to run it. So it was because it leaked that I went public.”
He also revealed that the operation on his shoulder was performed at Cappagh Hospital, Finglas, by Dr Gary O’Toole, the former Irish Olympic swimmer who is now a consultant specialist surgeon.
The 71-year-old Loughill native, who topped the poll for the first time in his long political career in the most recent general election, back in 2011, added that he it is “still my intention to run again” in the Limerick constitutency in the next election, due in 2016.
He is also, he said, “willing and able to continue for the full duration” as Finance Minister in the current Government, determined to oversee two more budgets before the next election, the first of which has been scheduled for October 14.
On a day when Mr Noonan also confirmed that thousands of discretionary medical card holders who have had those cards removed will now have them returned, he said he did not reveal his condition to officials at his department, but continued working throughout the weeks of his radiotherapy treatment, with appointments in late afternoon/early evening.
He added that when he told the Taoiseach about his diagnosis, Mr Kenny listened and told him he was confident he would make “a full recovery”.
Comparing politicians to general practitioners, who come across people with all kinds of illnesses during their working life, he said: “When you are talking to politicians about these things you’re talking to people who have a fairly shrewd idea of what’s what.”
The following is a transcript of the full interview Mr Noonan gave to the Limerick Leader.
LL: Can you go into more detail on your first discovery of this?
MN: Well like many people with cancer it started with discovering a lump when I was showering in the morning. It was in the shoulder area of my right upper arm. The diagnosis showed that it was in the muscle rather than in the bone, but actually they were able to get it out without damaging the shoulder muscle – although I will have to have physiotherapy to ensure that I have full use of the shoulder.
I made nothing of it. I told a couple of people I had this lump. I didn’t do anything for about 10 days and then I decided that it wasn’t going away.
LL: Was it increasing in size?
MN: Hard to say. I don’t think it was, I think it was the same all the time. It wasn’t sore or anything, you know. It was soft tissue. There was no pain or soreness or anything. So I got it checked out then and under a scan it came up for what it was. Then they did a biopsy to confirm it.
LL: Who was the first medical person that you spoke to?
MN: Well I don’t want to use names but I suppose I can use the name of the key man. Gary O’Toole did the operation. There was a bit of a sequence in getting to him, but they don’t like names being used. Gary – you’d know him from television. He was the Olympic swimmer, a doctor as well. He’s a specialist in this area.
LL: You’d have good things to say about how he handled the situation?
MN: He’s a great, great person. I admired him as an athlete, but I admire him as a doctor as well. And obviously he has done a great job for me.
LL: Obviously there was a lot of concern among your family and closest friends when this came up.
MN: Yeah, I kept it to a very small circle. The people close to me politically, two or three. I didn’t confide in anyone at the Department of Finance at the official level. I told the Taoiseach, of course, as soon as I was diagnosed. And I told my immediate family.
LL: They were anxious that you got it seen to as quickly as possible, clearly.
MN: Yeah. Once it was diagnosed it moved on very quickly then. The first treatment was at St Luke’s Hospital in Rathgar, for radiotherapy [in late March]. I had five weeks or five sessions a week – 25 sessions. They’re very short – and I did it in the afternoon and evening. I did it at a time when one would be leaving the office anyway.
LL: You continued to work throughout this period?
MN: They facilitated me by giving me my appointments at the end of their working day.
LL: So it didn’t interfere with your job as much as it might have?
MN: No, I continued to do my full schedule of work. As a matter of fact the only thing I cancelled out as an appointment last Friday. I had a lunchtime speaking engagement. I cancelled that because I knew I’d be recuperating at that stage.
LL: What was the response from the Taoiseach when you told him?
MN: Ah, he took it as a matter of fact. He’s a knowledgeable person. When I described what was wrong, he said ‘You’ll make a full recovery from that.’ And people do – these soft tissue issues. Politicians are general practitioners you know. They’ll have come across an awful lot of people in their political life who have different illnesses. So when you are talking to politicians about these things you’re talking to people who have a fairly shrewd idea of what’s what. But he was very supportive and continues to be very supportive.
LL: Was it made clear to you from an early stage that this was something they were going to be able to deal with effectively and quickly?
MN: Oh yeah – they said radiotherapy for five weeks to shrink the size of it, so that it makes it easier when we go to surgery to take it out in one piece. That finished up the week after Easter and they immediately arranged a date for surgery, which was last Wednesday. There was no debates. It was just run on a schedule as the way to deal with it.
LL: You went in there in the morning?
MN: Yes – I was operated on late morning. I was awake mid afternoon and was recuperating then. I was discharged on Saturday morning.
LL: How long did the operation take?
MN: I’m not too sure. It was full anaesthetic but I’m not sure how long it took.
LL: And how have you been feeling since?
MN: I’ve been on pain management, painkillers, fairly heavy stuff initially because it was a significant wound in my shoulder area. But I’m down to paracetemols now so I feel fine. I’m back behind my desk. The Taoiseach is gone to America on scheduled business so I’ll be doing Taoiseach’s Questions and Order of Business this afternoon, as I did again last week.
LL: Will you be saying something to the House about the situation?
MN: No I won’t, no. I’ve said what I’m going to say. I mean basically it’s a private matter. I wouldn’t have gone public on this at all only it leaked and one – one organ in the media, we’ll say [the Irish Daily Star] – were going to run it. So it was because it leaked that I went public.They’re only doing their job too [the newspaper]. I mean everybody is only doing their job – I don’t have any problems. I expected it to leak a lot sooner actually. I thought it would, when I was five weeks in St Luke’s Hospital. As a matter of fact I’m amazed that it didn’t because I met a lot of people up there. They have a very confidential staff, but I met other patients as well and I was chatting with them.
LL: You’re still deter-mined to see out the five years as Finance Minister?
MN: Yeah. The doctors tell me I’m well enough to continue as Finance Minister. Of course all these things are at the discretion of the Taoiseach but he knows that I am willing and able to continue for the full duration.
LL: Has it given you pause for thought about running for election again in Limerick?
MN: No. Obviously these are things that run into one’s head but it’s still my intention to run again in the next election, while acknowledging that it’s almost two years away.
LL: People missed you at the local election count – and obviously didn’t guess what the reason was. Were you keeping in touch with how things were going?
MN: I was keeping in touch with the counts, yeah.
LL: You must have had a big reaction from an awful lot of people since this broke last night?
MN: Yes, I’m getting text messages and messages on the phone and people are quite positive. I appreciate that very much and I’d like to thank everybody for their support. But, you know, I was health minister for a while. I introduced the first cancer strategy in the country. One in three of all Irish people experience some form of cancer at some time in their lives. It’s something that visits a lot of people, a lot of families. So I don’t want to make too much out of my personal situation. I’m having an experience which is common enough in Irish families and I suppose it gives me a deeper insight and a better understanding.
LL: OK. Thanks for you time. We wish you well.
MN: Thanks very much.