I survived cancer, now I’m helping others

The Irish Cancer Society are seeking new volunteers for their Survivor Support programme. Here CHRIS DUNNE talks to a Ballincollig man who fought bowel cancer in his 40s and is now volunteering his time to help support others battling or recovering from the disease
I survived cancer, now I’m helping others
Gerard Ingoldsby, a cancer survivor, who is now supporting others.Picture: Denis Minihane.

NOBODY emerges from a cancer journey unscathed; but often the knowledge and understanding gained along the way can help and support others facing and dealing with a diagnosis, as well as adapting to life after cancer.

“Being diagnosed with cancer is one of the most difficult things that a person can go through,” says Deirdre Murphy, who is a Survivor Support and Volunteer Coordinator with the Irish Cancer Society.

“Our Survivor Support programme is really important to us because it means that newly diagnosed patients have someone to talk to about the emotional, physical and practical impact of their diagnosis.”

The Irish Cancer Society is looking for new volunteers in Cork for its Survivor Support Programme.

Cancer survivor Gerard Ingoldsby, from Ballincolling, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2005 when he was aged 42.

“My wife, Mary, was a fantastic support to me,” says Gerard.

“She was my rock, driving me to hospital appointments for chemo- therapy and radiotherapy treatments. We tackled it together.”

Gerald knows that cancer can disrupt lives, causing havoc, threatening all that is familiar and safe.

He trained as a Survivor Support volunteer to give support, practical help and reassurance to cancer patients when they need it most.

“The months following completion of all my physical treatments were extremely difficult and traumatic for me,” he says.

“The full psychological impact of my cancer finally hit me — and hard!

“If I had spoken to another survivor at the time, someone who could appreciate exactly what I was going through; it would have been a great help and spared me a lot of suffering.

“So it is a privilege for me now to help others in this way, offering support, and above all hope, to newly diagnosed patients and survivors.”

Gerard’s hopes were dashed when a return visit to his GP led him to a consultant for a second colonoscopy, which confirmed a stage 3 cancerous polyp low down in the rectal area.

“I got all the facts and the scans,” says Gerard.

“It was localised in the lymphatic system and it hadn’t affected any other organs. A treatment plan combining chemotherapy and radiotherapy was the way forward.”

Gerard hadn’t contemplated the possibility that the effects of the treatment could set him back physically and emotionally.

“The combined therapy was the worst ever,” says Gerard.

“It was the worst I’ve ever felt. I didn’t suffer any hair loss, but the physical symptoms were very severe.

“The duration of the first round of treatment from January to March was tough. Then I had a break, before undergoing abdominal surgery in the Bon Secours Hospital in May, when the cancerous mass had dramatically shrunk.”

The surgery was very successful.

“My age, and where the cancer was, helped my chances of a good recovery,” says Gerard.

“I had a temporary colostomy bag that was reversed after three months.”

The after-effects of the trauma and the invasive surgery were not temporary for Gerard.

“I found going through all that extremely difficult,” he says.

Gerard Ingoldsby, a cancer survivor. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Gerard Ingoldsby, a cancer survivor. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“It was a both a physical and a mechanical process.”

And it wasn’t over.

“I had to undergo the rigours of chemotherapy and radiotherapy again,” adds Gerard.

“That was always on the cards. My wife drove me to two different Cork hospitals to receive the weekly treatments for six months. She was fantastic.”

His spirits were low as well as his energy.

“I felt nauseous. I couldn’t eat,” says Gerard. “I had no energy.”

The end of the treatment to expel the cancer was in sight. But the effects that Gerard hadn’t even considered would linger.

“When the treatments finished in March, 2006, I thought; all finished. I should be fine, off I go,” says Gerard.

“I should be thrilled and ecstatic, jumping around the garden.”

Instead, he faltered, knocked for six from the cancer that had floored him.

“Everything hit me,” Gerard recalls.

“I had a terrible sense of doom and gloom. I felt anxious all the time.”

Mary was concerned.

“What’s it like? She asked me,” says Gerard.

“I told her it felt like something awful was going to happen.”

But the worst was over, wasn’t it?

“You would think so,” says Gerard. “It was like my spirits were trying to catch up with my actual body. It kept getting worse. I didn’t know what to do.”

His oncology nurse did.

“She said; if you have a problem, do something about it. She advised me to visit Cork ARC Cancer Support House.”

It was the best house call he ever made.

“A weight was lifted off my shoulders,” says Gerard. “Here was a safe place.”

The haven offered new beginnings as well as welcome solace.

“I availed of counselling there,” says Gerard.

“I started, and still practice, Tai Chi and Tai Gong, things I would never have remotely considered before! I’d be the first to dismiss things like that. So it was a leap of faith for me.

“Going to ARC House was the best thing I ever did. Getting a new perspective, I began to recover, becoming calmer and finding out what is important and what is not. The mind, body and spirit began to heal.”

His life now renewed, filled with promise, Gerard ventured further.

“I attended a bowel cancer conference. I was curious,” says Gerard.

“A lady spoke at the conference who was incredibly brave, telling her story.”

Gerard realised he could be there for others who felt bereft and bewildered from cancer.

“The penny dropped,” says Gerard.

“I realised that I too can help others who need support dealing with cancer. I got in touch with the Irish Cancer Society. They said, ‘Come on board’.”

Gerard, like the other trained Survivor Support volunteers, had a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and is now post-treatment.

Gerard Ingoldsby. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Gerard Ingoldsby. Picture: Denis Minihane.

What does a Survivor Support volunteer do?

“You can meet with the person, but a chat is usually over the phone,” says Gerard.

“The chat can be five minutes or it can be five hours. It can be just the once, or many times.”

He provides a listening, understanding ear.

“I try and offer reassurance and provide some hope. I tell them I am 14 years a cancer survivor,” says Gerard.

“Depending on who calls; the patient is usually matched with the person who had the same form of cancer and who is roughly the same gender and the same age.”

Cancer can be a lonely station.

“It certainly can,” says Gerard.

“One phone call can kick-start a comforting conversation. You can access the service through the Daffodil Centres or the cancer Nurseline service.”

What kind of things does he get asked?

“One man wanted to know about my quality of life now and if I had returned to work,” says Gerard.

“Others have different questions.”

Gerard knows the huge impact that a willing, listening ear can have in times of strife.

“My family and friends were all very helpful,” says Gerard, looking back on his own cancer journey.

“But you still need someone who has walked that same road as you.”

Gerard has reaped the rewards of walking beside those in need as a friend when all else has deserted them.

“Becoming a Survivor Support volunteer, helping others get through things, has helped get me back on track,” say Gerard.

“When some doors closed; others opened.”

He is in a good place now.

“Cancer hits you like a ton of bricks. Your brain shuts down. It is a scary place.”

He often thinks of the brave lady who spoke at the bowel cancer conference.

“She made a big impression on me,” says Gerard.

“She was petrified, but so impressive. She prompted me to train as a Survivor Support Volunteer. It is a wonderful free service provided by the Irish Cancer Society.”

SUPPORT CONTACTS

Nurseline Freephone: 1800 200 700.

Daffodil Centre CUH: 021-4234536.

Bons Secours Hospital: 021-4941941.

ABOUT SURVIVOR SUPPORT

Survivor Support is a phone-based, one to one peer support programme where volunteers, who have had cancer, provide emotional and practical support to others going through it. Volunteers are selected and trained to give support, practical information and reassurance when cancer patients need it most.

Through the Survivor Support programme, volunteers speak to cancer patients to:

Help them come to terms with their diagnosis of cancer.

Discuss their feelings and anxieties about cancer treatments.

Give emotional support and practical advice.

If you have had cancer, and would like to know more, contact Deirdre Murphy, Survivor Support and Volunteer Coordinator on: 01- 2310564, or email:dmurphy@irishcancer.ie

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