My Health Experience: ‘Stop worrying about what people will think of you’

The chief executive of the Jack and Jill Foundation pretended there was nothing wrong due to embarrassment. Thankfully, his wife didn’t


In November 2012, I was at the Jack and Jill office when I had a rectal bleed in the bathroom. Although I was scared, I was like most men and was too pathetic and embarrassed to say anything, so I just carried on and pretended it hadn’t happened. But four weeks later, the same thing happened again in the middle of the night.

This time I told my wife, Mary Ann, and thankfully she took no nonsense from me and drove me straight into St Vincent’s Hospital where I had a colonoscopy done. The doctor told me, almost immediately, that it looked like a rectal tumour and he was pretty sure I had cancer.

It was very shocking to hear that word in relation to myself as I had never been sick in my life and when I was growing up, the word cancer immediately spelled tombstone.

But I accepted the diagnosis and was reassured that it was treatable and, thanks to the fast action of my wife, it was likely to have been caught relatively early. So although I was frightened, I also began to feel more relaxed as I realised I was not under any threat of sudden death.

Once the results of the colonoscopy were revealed, I was given the details of my treatment and the surgery which would follow.

In January of this year, I began my cancer treatment which involved a mobile chemotherapy programme.

There are over 100 recipes for different cocktails of chemo and I was assured that mine wasn’t too difficult to cope with. I had to carry a bottle around in my pocket which was full of medicine and this was administered through a pipe into my chest.

Efficient method of treatment
It was a very efficient method of receiving treatment and once a week I visited the hospital for a further round of chemo – it was all very simple and civilised. I was extremely fortunate in that I had no side effects whatsoever. I didn’t lose what little hair I have and I had no nausea or exhaustion, so I was very lucky in that respect.

I also had to undergo a course of radiotherapy which lasted for 27 days. I would go into the hospital every day for an hour and I know it sounds flippant but the staff were so nice that I really missed it when it was over as there was always a festive feel about the place.

The reason for the treatment was to reduce my tumour to make it easier for surgery so once it was over, I had an operation to remove it in May of this year. Apparently it was quite difficult, but the good news was that it was a success and I am now cancer free.

After my operation, I was left with a dead leg. I went back into hospital a fortnight after the surgery and doctors spent three weeks trying to find the cause of this problem. However, despite receiving medication and the opinion of three orthopaedic surgeons, the issue wasn’t resolved so I got bored lying about and discharged myself.

I have refused to accept that I will be hobbling around on crutches for the rest of my life so have taken matters into my own hands and have tried various different methods including massage, acupuncture and herbal remedies.

Getting back on my feet
I am beginning to get a little feeling back and am determined to try whatever I can to get back on my feet properly.

We are currently in the middle of a big fundraiser for Jack and Jill and I feel very frustrated that I can’t gallop around the place like I used to do in the past. But I do realise that if it wasn’t for Mary Ann, I might be telling a different story right now.

I didn’t relish the thought of stripping off and revealing an “embarrassing” part of my body to doctors and nurses so I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

But once I got to hospital, I was assured that they had all seen plenty of bottoms over the years and mine wasn’t likely to be any different to anyone else’s.

Knowing what I now know, I would encourage everyone, especially men, to stop worrying about what people will think of you. When it comes to health and particularly cancer, getting early diagnosis and treatment can mean the difference between life and death. I am almost there with regard to my recovery and as soon as I manage to get this leg going again, there will be no stopping me.

Jonathan Irwin (72) is chief executive of the Jack and Jill Foundation, the children’s charity he set up in 1997 with his wife, Mary Ann O’Brien, following the death of their son Jack. The Jack and Jill Foundation is running a text message campaign to raise €500,000 to help families of children with life-limiting illnesses. Text “We care” to 50300 to make a €4 donation.

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