Olive Buckley was born in Dublin in 1961 but later moved to Belfast where she worked in the Ulster Hospital as a Biomedical Scientist. Olive was also a dedicated trade union activist before becoming Unite the Union’s Regional Officer - looking after those working in the health sector across Northern Ireland.
Olive was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2015 and passed away in September 2016, just over 5 years ago. In an obituary Unite the Union described Olive as “an ardent champion of workers (and) a leader for women in Northern Ireland; an unyielding champion of equality, democracy and solidarity”.
Before she died Olive was determined to help raise awareness of pancreatic cancer and appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback alongside surgeon Mark Taylor, when she told host William Crawley about her journey.
Olive’s story is told here in her own words and by her partner Gary.
“Did I look yellow this morning”?
Olive called me at around 10 a.m. in April 2015 and asked me if I’d noticed that she was jaundiced. I told her that I hadn’t but then we’d both been rushing to leave the house and get to work. Olive was a Biomedical Scientist working in the Ulster Hospital but at the time was on secondment to Unite the Union as their Health rep for Northern Ireland. She told me that several of her work colleagues had remarked to her that she looked yellow and was going to ring her GP. Luckily – and unusually - she was able to able to get an appointment straight away. The mention of jaundice likely raised alarm with the receptionist in the surgery. When I got home from work Olive told me that she had been sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital by her GP for “tests”. This concerned me a bit but Olive assured me that it was “nothing serious”. I noticed her jaundice for the first time that evening but it was quite subtle. The jaundice seemed to fade in the next few days so I began to relax a bit and so did Olive.
A week or so later I was in work and my mobile rang. It was Olive. “Can you get out of work early today”? It was a Tuesday and normally I didn’t get home until nearly 10. I arranged to leave early and throughout the day wondered what was going on. I got home at around 5 and Olive told me to sit down. She didn’t beat around the bush and told me that she had pancreatic cancer which had spread to her liver and lungs. the fact that the cancer had spread meant that the tumour was inoperable so the only option was chemotherapy. Olive was quite matter of fact about it and we sat in silence for a while. Turns out Olive had been told the news that morning and had been processing is until she told me. Naturally, things got very emotional but we both vowed to work together to tackle this thing – no matter what it took.
Neither Olive nor I knew anything about pancreatic cancer but the next day I made the mistake of using Google to read up on it. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest of diseases and the reality of what we were up against suddenly hit me. Learning some of the facts about this horrible disease was devastating but I was determined to be there for Olive, as she had been there for me. We were a team.
Luckily for Olive her chemotherapy started relatively quickly. I had visions of Olive losing her hair and being constantly sick as a result but there were few ill effects. I attended all of her chemo sessions and we had regular meetings with her consultant. The staff at the Bridgewater Suite in Belfast City Hospital are fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough about them. We were lucky to live only 20 minutes or so away from ‘the City’ so Olive and I would go to the hospital early on Wednesday mornings to have her bloods done then I would take her home and we would wait for the phone call to go back for the chemo sessions. We usually finished at around 5pm fighting our way home through the rush hour traffic. It’s weird the things you remember.
Olive continued to work for Unite the Union during this time and we also began the process of telling people about her condition. Olive is from Dublin originally so she went down to tell her “mam” and her half-sister first then we went to see various friends in Northern Ireland. Everyone was naturally shocked but very supportive. In November Olive spoke at an event in Stormont to help raise awareness of pancreatic cancer.
The chemotherapy sessions were having a positive effect on Olive’s cancer and the tumour was not spreading. This was good news but there was a complication. Olive also suffered from Atherosclerosis and prior to her cancer diagnosis had been waiting for a major operation to tackle this. The lack of blood flow to her right foot made walking very painful for Olive and the severity of this pain had increased significantly in the months leading up to her cancer diagnosis. The chemo meant that any action to tackle this other health issue had to be put on hold so as a result, the problem worsened – as did the pain. However, Olive battled on and didn’t stop working until December 2015. She also attended numerous events usually wearing a pair of sandals as she couldn’t wear shoes because of the pain. This made for some great photos when she attended the 2015 Women in Business awards with perfect make-up, perfect hair, a beautiful dress, and a pair of sandals!
Throughout 2016 Olive continued to receive chemotherapy with positive results but the pain in her foot was getting worse. The lack of blood flow to her right foot meant that two of her toes had to be amputated. Again, Olive took this in her stride (pardon the pun) and her attitude was “I’ll never miss two toes”.
Around this time Olive was invited to speak on William Crawley’s BBC Talkback programme about pancreatic cancer. She was absolutely brilliant and her positivity shone through. On listening to the broadcast again one thing struck me. When asked if she had any symptoms Olive says “the symptom I presented with was jaundice with no pain attached to it” but as the Consultant Surgeon Mark Taylor points out Olive had some of the subtle symptoms of pancreatic cancer such as indigestion which she masked by adjusting her lifestyle. Had she or I been aware of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer perhaps Olive would have gone to the GP earlier, before the cancer had spread to her liver and lungs. So, in Olive’s case, as with every other pancreatic cancer patient, time did indeed matter.
Despite the amputation, chemotherapy and constant pain, Olive battled on as best she could. Much to my consternation, she decided to fly to Italy with a friend for a holiday while she was confined to a wheelchair; she was determined to keep going. The amputation of two toes hadn’t had the desired effect and she was still in constant agony so it was decided to amputate the lower portion of her right foot. When this didn’t work there was talk of amputating her right leg below the knee. During this period (June/July 2016) the chemotherapy was on hold until a surgeon suggested some “replumbing’ of Olive’s right leg – which basically involved inserting a tube to increase blood flow. This seemed to do the trick and Olive’s chemotherapy started again in August 2016.
Remarkably when Olive started chemotherapy again tests showed that the tumour hadn’t grown and had if anything shrunk a little. In addition, the pain had begun to subside and Olive was getting some decent sleep for the first time in months.
Olive’s 55th birthday was on Tuesday, September 13th, 2015 and she had a great day. She was delighted to receive a huge bunch of flowers with no card. I told her she must have a secret admirer. I only found out last year who sent them (thanks Eileen). The next day Olive was due to go for a chemotherapy session but told me the next day that she was in a lot of pain and rang her doctor. She was advised to go to A&E to get it checked out so we went to the RVH first thing. In Olive’s mind it was nothing serious and she hoped to be out in time to have ger chemotherapy that afternoon. Sadly, though it was not to be. Tests showed that the tube in Olive’s right leg had become blocked and blood was not getting to her right foot. Amputation below the knee was the only course of action.
Olive was kept in hospital awaiting a slot for the operation but on Sunday 18th she became unwell with a chest infection. This got progressively worse and by Monday evening she was really struggling to breathe. Throughout the early hours of Tuesday morning Olive literally fought for her life but somehow managed to survive. She sent a message to a friend the next day saying “fight, what a fight. Family called and all”. She had contracted pneumonia.
It was during that long night that it dawned on me that Olive wasn’t going to survive. Somehow, despite all the pain, the amputations, and the chemotherapy, I had managed to convince myself Olive would survive this. During the night her doctor informed us there would be no amputation, no more chemotherapy and we were asked if we agreed with a ‘do not resuscitate” order. I rang a friend the next day and asked, “what am I going to do without her?”
Olive couldn’t be moved to the Intensive Care Unit in the RVH as she was on such a high dose of constant oxygen which couldn’t be interrupted. The doctors did try to reduce the supply in the following days in the hope that she could eventually be moved but it was a forlorn hope.
On Wednesday, September 28th I spent most of the day by Olive’s bedside and she drifted in and out of consciousness. She could barely speak as she had a mask on constantly and there was a scary moment at around 6.30 pm when I and another visitor were asked to leave the room. Again, Olive came to and I went home for the evening after briefly chatting. She told me to order logs for the fire!
I have a phone which allows me to turn off notifications after midnight so that I can only receive calls and messages from selected friends and family. When I was going to bed that evening it dawned on me that if the hospital needed to get in touch with me, they couldn’t.
At 2.20 a.m. the phone rang…
Learn more about the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer by clicking here