Cancer survivor, Deirdre Campbell, wears a very special pendant around her neck. The heart-shaped jewellery is adorned with pretty little forget-me-not flowers, each one, she says: “represents each and every person who helped me in my battles against cancer”.
Deirdre first battled skin cancer, then she fought colon cancer. And in typical fashion for the Strabane woman, she is determined to turn the experience into a positive one. In August, to mark the second anniversary of what was her latest life-saving operation, Deirdre, began work as a senior volunteer with Macmillan Cancer Care.
“I wanted to help others who find themselves in the same position I was in, simply because of the help Macmillan gave to me.”
Deirdre’s remarkable story began seven years ago. Noticing “something which just didn’t feel right,” she was eventally diagnosed with skin cancer on the right side of her face.
“I was devastated. I just thought ‘Oh God!’
“Your face is your fortune, it defines you but I have to say my surgeon, Dr. Kamal, did a magnificent job. I had been told to expect a droop on that side of my face.”
Remarkably upbeat, Deirdre was determined to meet the challenge head on.
“It was terrifying but the truth is, it removed some of my laughter lines. That was the silver lining. In fact it looked so good I was going to ask if could I have the surgery on the left side as well! You have to cling to silver linings after a cancer diagnosis; things like the great work the team at Altnagelvin Hospital did. You hear a lot about the negatives but rarely about the great work they do.
“It was bad news but it wasn’t a death sentence. There is life and laughter after a cancer diagnosis.”
That resolve was sorely tested when, on August 9, 2010, “a date I’ll take to my grave with me,” confesses Mrs. Campbell, she received yet more bad news: a second cancer diagnosis.
“I’d been having some health problems and I was sent to the hospital. When the consultant met me he told me he wasn’t sure how I was still walking around. At that point I just thought; ‘We’re in a bit of bother here.’”
Though the colon cancer diagnosis, major surgery and chemotherapy course led her to her “lowest ever ebb”, Deirdre’s overriding belief was: “I have too many things to do to be beat yet.”
The lowest point on that road to recovery occurred while awaiting chemotherapy. In a bid to insulate her husband Tom and four children Jacinta, Gavin, Francesca and Laura from the horrors of chemo, Deirdre attended the hospital alone.
“I thought my family had seen me suffer enough. They had been through this with me already. I wanted to protect them as much as they were trying to protect me. It was only on seeing other patients, faded, with tubes everywhere, that I became terrified. I thought, ‘Am I really as ill as this?’”
It was at that very moment Macmillan volunteer, Michelle, touched the back of my hand and asked; ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ That gesture was enough to remind me I wasn’t alone. Her kindness was all I needed to get me through both that day and my treatment.”
Deirdre was so weak afterwards, her medical team advised her to ‘stay indoors for two winters.’
“I wasn’t strong enough to fight even the common cold.”
Since then the Strabane survivor has amassed a series of strange annecdotes, meetings with old friends and acquaintances who thought she had died.
“When I was running about fundraising in Strabane everyone knew me and I honestly believe they got as large a shock as I did when I was floored by cancer. I’ll never tire of seeing that surprised look in their faces when they meet me in the street,” she smiles.
Life is no longer about getting through treatments for Deirdre: “Now life is about keeping as well as I can for as long as I can.
“I have to do that not only for me but for my family who suffered with me, for the medical teams, both Dr. Goodwiny at Altnagelvin and Riverside Medical Practice, Strabane, for the great work they did in saving me. Without them there would be no me.”
Forever thankful to her surgical team, Deirdre said: “I thought they were great. The lifesaving things have to be done so quickly that some would be forgiven for forgetting the patient’s human side, but I and my family were well looked and cared after by Altnagelvin.”
In order to show them that their work is appreciated, Deirdre, already well known for her charity work, has rededicated herself to helping others. No longer fit for the 24 hour shifts she used to work at sheltered housing complex, Dillon Court, Deidre needed a new outlet for her caring side.
“I can’t ever repay people for all they gave me through their love and laughter, but I want to spend the rest of my life trying.
“When it comes to cancer, I know what it is like to be on the other side of the door so I volunteered with Macmillan.
“Hitting that low ebb proved to be a test for me. I’m on my way back now and I think my experience will allow me to help, certainly at least to listen and understand. I spent two years at home going up the walls, wondering what I was going to do. I always enjoyed my voluntary work and fundraising but this time, when I pulled on the green Macmillan t-shirt, I honestly felt like the old Deirdre was back. I felt like my old self for the first time in four years. That is an amazing feeling in itself. The fear was gone. I was on the other side of the experience at last.”
The first engagement at which Deirdre assisted was held in Altnagelvin’s Sperrin Room, the cancer ward.
“I had been in that room countless times, for countless checkups and examinations. Words can’t describe what it meant for me returning there in order to help others.”
Deirdre has begun to enjoy her life again, though she is far from hedonistic about things. With her penchant for fine fashionable heels, she watched a pair of ‘Iregular Choice’ shoes reduce in price for a full year until on August 9 this year, she purchased them as a treat for herself. “You can’t get things too handy,” she laughs. Few will accuse her of ‘getting things handy’ “But the girls in the shop probably think I’m mad!”
The ‘Forget Me Not’ necklace which she purchased exactly one year before acts, she confides, “as a reminder of all who helped me, each flower represents a person who helped me get better. I wear it so as I never forget how kind people are.”
Lisa McGrogan of Macmillan Cancer Care was full of praise for Deirdre: “She is remarkable, a testament to the work all our volunteers conduct on a daily basis. We could not operate without volunteers who help people, both patients and family affected by cancer. Every diagnosis affects 44 people on average. Some feel they must face it alone but thanks to the kindness of people like Deirdre, we aim to be there for everyone from diagnosis through to treatment. Deirdre’s story really is a remarkable tale of courage and kindness.” If you would like to volunteer with Deirdre for Macmillan Cancer Care even for a few hours a month please contact them on 0300 1000 200.