Till death do us part… the marriage vows had an especially poignant resonance for Newtownabbey woman Tara Millar who feared she may never have the chance to take them after being diagnosed with cervical cancer just months after her engagement.
When Ryan Melancon proposed to Tara Millar on the dramatic slopes of ‘Mordor’ in New Zealand during their year-long Antipodean adventure in 2014, little did the couple know the life or death odyssey that lay ahead.
Blissfully happy and with everything to live for, Tara (33) from Newtownabbey was about to face her own immortality following a shock cancer diagnosis.
But with a ‘gut-wrenching determination to suck it up’, as she says, Tara faced down her fate and used her situation to become the ﬁrst woman in Northern Ireland taking part in a drugs trial which could save thousands of lives around the world.
A cancer ward in a Belfast hospital though is a long way from where their story started on the glamorous cruise ships where she and American-born Ryan, a videographer, ﬁrst met in a love story worthy of the big screen. "Sometimes we’d be working on diﬀerent ships whose stop-oﬀ itineraries were just a day apart, so we’d hide notes for each other in various restaurants in port!” recalls Tara.
“We did lose touch for a few months when he was working at the North Pole and had no internet connection. Then one day I was in a coﬀee shop in Alaska when who walked in but Ryan!"
In 2014, after ﬁve years on the cruise ships the couple decided to take a year-long sabbatical to tour New Zealand.
That’s where Ryan proposed, on the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe, better known now as the setting for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies.
“On the way back to the UK at the end of the trip we stopped oﬀ in Bangkok. It was while we were staying there that I started haemorrhaging really badly one night – I bled for 45 minutes constantly, though I’d no pain or discomfort,” says Tara.
“In a foreign country we’d no idea about doctors so I just decided to take it easy for a couple of days – we still had Cambodia and Angkor Watt to visit after all!
“Three weeks later, back in Northern Ireland, I went to the doctor for a smear test but started bleeding again so she couldn’t do it and referred me to hospital though she did say she thought she ‘saw something’.
“I’d to wait three weeks for that hospital appointment but I managed to ﬁt in a trip to Mardi Gras and went skiing and I wasn’t especially worried at that stage. The brain is an amazing organ in how it can block things out. "Having ﬁnally attended the hospital I had a week to wait for results. I wanted Ryan with me so he flew back here at short notice and on April 1, 2015, at Antrim Hospital I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and sent home with a booklet to read while doctors arranged further tests.
“They still had to determine what stage it was at and before that appointment I did as much reading as I could. I thought, ‘I can handle stage 1 or 2 but I’m not so sure about stage 3 or 4. As it turned out I was stage 2B.”
Tara’s treatment would involve chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy – internal radiation treatment – but before it started at one of the meetings with the consultant she was oﬀered the chance to take part in a clinical drug trial.
Taking part meant doubling her treatment time from six to 12 weeks but it wasn’t a completely unknown drug having already been used with breast cancer patients. This trial would show its efficacy for cervical cancer treatment.
“Drugs are trialled in three phases and this was its third phase – so after this, if it proves successful, it will become the new standard treatment. So it was pretty well proven already,” explains Tara.
“Also some people become resistant to the standard drug treatment and I was afraid if I became resistant it would allow the cancer to return and spread. I wondered how I’d feel if, in ﬁve years, the cancer was back and I hadn’t taken part in the trial.
“With my stage 2 cancer I had a 65% chance of surviving but this new drug would give me another 5% chance of life and faced with this situation you want every percentage point more.”
However, despite facing a possible life and death decision, one of Tara’s biggest concerns was that she’d lose her hair on the trial drug. “That was a big, big thing to overcome. I asked myself if I’d do the trial if I wasn’t going to lose my hair and I didn’t even have to think - of course I would. So now my hair was standing in the way of me having a better chance of life. I would just have to get over my hair ego!” she laughs.
“People get so self-conscious about trying not to look like they have cancer when in fact you soon discover people don’t really take that much notice of you and if they do then they’re more likely to want to give you a hug than anything else.
“Actually I didn’t lose all of my hair but I did have a skinhead as I shaved it oﬀ charity anyway!”
Beginning her chemo then, Tara’s ﬁrst six weeks weren’t too bad but the next six proved extremely arduous.
“I got through as best I could but you can’t even get out much because your immune system is so compromised. I watched old black and white movies and I gave origami a go but I was rubbish at it -I did get into colouring though! For those six weeks it felt like I was just existing. I hated it. It was so hard,” she admits.
However, even before the end of her treatment, after one of her regular scans, the doctor had some shocking news.
“She rushed out into reception, grabbed me, pulled me into the office and told me: 'Your tumour doesn’t exist anymore!’ They’d never seen anyone respond like this before.”
Tara’s treatment ended in August 2015, and her last three-monthly monitoring scan is due next month (August).
“Doctors think that if the cancer’s going to come back it’ll probably do so in the ﬁrst two years following treatment – so this summer is quite a milestone," says Tara who had Ryan by her side throughout her treatment.
“He really went out there for me. He was always there for me. He even sneaked a McDonald’s into the hospital for me!” laughs Tara, whose love story had a happy ending when the couple ﬁnally married last September.
Looking back over the last couple of years, though, Tara believes her experience of cancer had changed her for the better.
“I’m not as hard on myself and my shortcomings, and I don’t judge others,” she says.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did get very, very angry at times too. You have to go through all that emotion though, to get it out of your system. It isn’t fair and you’re going to be pissed oﬀ. “Initially there were times I thought, oh my gosh, what if this doesn’t go away - and it’s horrible to think you know how you’re going to die.
“I’d skipped a smear test because I couldn’t get an appointment before I left on my last cruise – and maybe that ﬁve minute appointment would have made the diﬀerence. But you have to let that go.
“If someone is going through cancer, I’d assure them that they don’t have to feel positive all the time. It’s ok not to, so long as you come back to the ‘let’s get on with this’ frame of mind.
"One of the sayings that helped me cope was: 'You never see a wild thing feel sorry for itself’. It was that gut-wrenching determination to suck it up and deal with it that helped me through.
“I’m so thankful for what seems like this second chance. In fact, we should all be jumping for joy for our chance at life!”
*Anyone facing similar issues can contact the Cancer Focus NI Nurseline, 0800 783 3339 or visit cancerfocusni.org
Out & About
The Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival returned to the city recently for a weekend of family fun, food and frolics.