Connected Health care worker Jacqueline McGeough put her blurred vision down to a draught before a routine visit to an optician led to the discovery of a life-threatening tumour.

Jacqueline was on her way to visit clients on March 13, 2023, when the vision in her left eye suddenly became blurry.

“I just put it down to a draught or a piece of dirt in my eye but when I later mentioned it to my daughter Sorayah, she reminded me that I already had a check-up appointment booked for Specsavers in Dundalk and should go.”

And lucky for Jacqueline — a native of Dublin who now lives in Jonesborough, Co Armagh with her husband Dermot — she attended the optician when she did.

“The optician, Thomas Mulholland, told me that the retina had detached from my eye abnormally and referred me as an emergency case. He said it was of immediate importance to reattach the retina or I could lose sight in that eye.”

An abnormal detachment of the retina was later confirmed at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast but, following several further tests, Jacqueline was then referred to the Mater Hospital in Belfast. There she was told by Brendan Lacey, Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon, that investigations had also discovered a tumour at the back of her eye. It was cancerous (squamous cell carcinoma).

This news came like a bolt from the blue, for the mother of two and grandmother of three.

“When I heard the word cancer, my life flashed before me — my daughters, my grandchildren, my husband, my son-in-law, my work. It was surreal,” Jacqueline explains.

She adds: “I was given two choices by the surgeon: ‘radiation therapy or removal’. Initially, I thought he was talking about removing the tumour but to my horror, I discovered he was actually talking about my left eye. My world was turned upside down in an instant. It was very strange because at no time did I feel the effects of any symptoms other than one bout of blurred vision. There was no illness nor any pain.”

Further CT scans revealed the full extent of the tumour’s aggression — it had expanded from 16.5mm to 17.5mm in just one week and was already deemed to be a large growth for its location. Jacqueline was then referred to Mr Sachin Salvi, Consultant Ophthalmologist at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield.

“On arrival, Mr Salvi explained everything about the illness and confirmed it was life-threatening. I was told it was at high risk of metastasising. He said he was ‘very sorry’, but that my eye would have to be removed to avoid the cancer spreading.

“He said, ‘I am not going to guarantee your life’ and I replied, ‘I know that only God can do that, but I know you will do your best’.  I asked when they wanted to take my eye out and he said: ‘tomorrow’. I was devastated but had no options, given the choice of losing my eye or, potentially, my life.”

Jacqueline recalls how she “struggled” to tell her family she would have to lose her eye to save her life. “Half of Co Louth and Jonesborough was praying for me,” she adds.

When her left eye and the tumour behind it were removed on May 24, 2023, the growth had reached a “critical” 18mm in length.

She explains: “It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. But the shock of it did then begin to sink in.

“I was particularly shocked to discover that there are no support groups in Northern Ireland for people who lose eyes. I think that is disgraceful because it is such a traumatic experience and adapting to a new way of life can be very difficult. Having said that, I did find the health system in Northern Ireland and in England to be “nothing short of fantastic”.

Prosthetic Eye

Having a prosthetic eye fitted was particularly daunting for Jacqueline.

“The nice lady in Shankill Wellbeing and Treatment Centre pulled out a drawer and it was full of eyes, and they were looking back at me. It was a daunting moment and quite emotional for me. I remember saying ‘the last time someone opened a drawer like that for me, it was full of diamonds’, recalling the day I picked out my wedding ring.”

Jacqueline was overwhelmed by the support from her family, friends, employer, and work colleagues both pre and post operation.

“All of my family and friends were so supportive throughout the ordeal. I really do not know how I would have coped otherwise.

“I had wonderful support from Connected Health and that made me very proud to be a part of such a caring team. Directors and managers called me to enquire how I was, the team sent flowers, and all were very genuinely concerned for me. There were calls, messages and flowers from so many of my colleagues in Connected Health and that was really special.”

Upon her return to work and following 20 years as a frontline carer, today Jacqueline has the more desk-based managerial role of Client Care Supervisor for Connected Health in the Louth-Monaghan region.

“I am extremely grateful to all of those who played a part in my diagnosis, treatment and getting me back to my life, from Thomas Mulholland in Specsavers to Brendan Lacey and his team, to Mr Salvi and his team — they were all wonderful. And then there was my sister Marion Mullen in Manchester who cared for me so well in the weeks after surgery, and the extremely compassionate staff of the Rutland Hotel in Sheffield who treated me like royalty when I stayed there prior to the operation.”

Jacqueline, despite her difficult journey, counts herself lucky that the tumour was discovered and removed when it was. And she is urging others to ensure they visit an optician for regular check-ups, especially if they experience any changes or abnormalities in their vision.

“I would advise everyone to get their eyes checked regularly both front and back — it’s a very small price to pay to save your sight or even your life. You can never put a price on that.”

Jacqueline remains at a high cancer risk and currently attends MRI scans every three months to rule out metastases in her kidneys and liver.