Complementary therapy with Action Cancer is helping Belfast teen Olivia recover from painful spinal cancer surgery

Maureen Coleman speaks to nurse Kerry Rogan about how an Action Cancer-devised programme of complementary therapies has helped her 15-year-old daughter Olivia recover from spinal cancer surgery

Olivia Rogan with therapist Alicia Ferguson at the Action Cancer centre in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Maureen Coleman

COMING from a medical background, theatre nurse Kerry Rogan was always slightly sceptical about the health benefits of complementary therapies.

But when her young daughter Olivia was diagnosed with spinal cancer two years ago, a desperate Kerry was keen to try anything to help her reduce her anxiety and pain.

The south Belfast mum-of-three, who works at the Ulster Independent Clinic, was directed to Action Cancer by a colleague. The charity offers a range of therapies free of charge to any adult or child to assist with both the physical and psychological symptoms associated with a cancer diagnosis.

The therapies don't replace treatment but rather 'complement' the conventional medical approaches. In Olivia's case, this meant major surgery to remove the tumour from her spine.

The 15-year-old, a pupil at Methodist College Belfast, regularly avails of aromatherapy, reflexology, facial reflexology and Pilates to aid sleep, relieve stress, reduce pain and improve her overall quality of life. And Kerry says she has seen a huge change in her daughter over the past year.

"Prior to her surgery, Olivia was in awful pain and had to take a lot of medication which was traumatic for her," Kerry says.

"I found it difficult, as a nurse, that I couldn't get on top of the pain. Once the surgery was over, I remember thinking that it would be a total cure for her – but it's been a long slow process. She still gets leg and back pain and can't sit for a long period of time.

"Olivia missed a year of school and for a while, lost touch with her peers. In addition to dealing with her cancer diagnosis and the pain, she also had to deal with the anxiety of sitting her GCSEs.

"By the time I contacted Action Cancer, it's fair to say she was a bit broken. At this stage I was desperate and willing to try anything to help her cope.

"I rang Action Cancer and they came up with a plan for Olivia, specially adapted to suit her needs. I've definitely noticed a big change in her since she started with the complementary therapies. They've helped with her sleep, they've given her hope and positivity and she's lasting a lot longer at school.

"The Pilates is helping to strengthen her core so she can sit up. And there's always someone to listen to her when she's in pain or feeling anxious. Action Cancer has certainly made a difference to her life."

Kerry, who has two other children, Patrick (17) and Will (11), found out Olivia had spinal cancer in July 2017. Just 13 at the time, Olivia had developed subtle symptoms; pins and needles and a bit of back pain. Kerry put it down to Olivia's hockey playing but when the teenager began tripping up at school, she knew it was something more sinister. However, not for one moment did Kerry suspect her daughter had cancer.

Olivia was sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital for an MRI scan which showed up the tumour. To begin with, Kerry was convinced the tumour was benign as spinal cancer in children isn't common. At the end of July, Olivia underwent surgery to remove the tumour but it wasn't until five days after the operation that Kerry was told the shocking news.

"I was absolutely convinced the tumour would come back benign," Kerry says.

"At no stage did it enter my head that my daughter could have cancer. It was such a terrible shock and my way of coping was to do as much research as possible to find out what could be done to help her.

"There was some talk of sending her to Florida for proton beam therapy but in the end it was decided not to do radiotherapy. Instead, she has to have MRI scans every three months, to keep an eye on her."

The plan of therapies put together by staff at Action Cancer hasn't just benefited Olivia, but Kerry too, as they are also available to family members. Both mum and daughter have gone together for aromatherapy treatments while Olivia particularly loves the facial reflexology as a way of helping her relax.

"She has an aromatherapy roller ball which she uses in school and different oils," Kerry says.

"She did try the Bowen Technique too but it wasn't for her. She's doing really well now. She's able to deal with her pain a lot better and is so much happier and relaxed. She has a lovely bunch of friends at school and just seems to be in a much better place.

"I think the complementary therapies have played a big part in her recovery. Before all this happened, I was dubious about them, especially being a nurse. But when you're desperate and something like this is offered to you, you'll take it.

Kerry adds: "I must admit, I didn't believe they would work but the treatments have helped Olivia relax, sleep better and have a much more positive mindset about the future – and for that, I'm extremely grateful."

:: Action Cancer is holding a gala ball at Titanic Belfast on December 6, hosted by Boyzone's Keith Duffy. Money raised will go towards children's therapeutic services at Action Cancer. For further details, call Action Cancer on 028 9080 3369/47 or visit


:: Aromatherapy – The controlled use of essential oils to promote physical and psychological well-being. Essential oils are liquid extracts of flowers, herbs, fruit and woody plants. The oils are diluted in a carrier oil or cream.

:: Therapeutic Gentle Massage Therapy – Light touch and gentle pressure to ease muscle tension and relax the body.

:: Reflexology – The application of gentle pressure to different points on the feet, lower leg or hands to deeply relax the body.

:: Visualisation – The use of imagery to create a peaceful scene in the client's mind to aid relaxation.

:: Bach Flower Remedies – natural remedies which help to balance emotions and mood such as fear and anxiety.

:: Bowen Therapy – when thumbs and forefingers are used on precise points on the body to make rolling type moves which gently stimulate the muscles, soft tissue and energy within the body.

:: Emmett Therapy – involves the application of light finger pressure at specific points to enable gentle releases for common problems including neck, shoulder and back pain.

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