Deirdre’s special birthday delight

Deirdre Campbell.
Deirdre Campbell.

Most women, and indeed men for that matter, probably dread the prospect of turning 60.

But, for Deirdre Campbell, there’s every reason to celebrate as it was a birthday milestone she never took for granted.

Four years ago, Deirdre was diagnosed with bowel cancer and underwent life-saving surgery and chemotherapy.

Just a few years previously, Deirdre had also experienced skin cancer.

Having come through so much, the bubbly Sion Mills woman is proof positive that there is life after not one, but two cancer diagnoses.

Far from the famous saying that, a lady should never reveal her age, Deirdre thinks it’s “hilarious” to be picking up her bus pass.

She said: “I have been amazed at the love and kindness from my family and friends. When I was growing up and somebody was 60 it was like they were an ancient monument.

“To me, it is a milestone in my life, especially because of the events of a few years ago.

“I thank God I am here and lived to see all the wonderful things I have seen and done, including going to Paris which I had wanted to do since I was a teenager and, of course, to be a grandma is absolutely awesome.

“When I was young I stayed a lot with my granny. She was lovely but an old-time granny. She wouldn’t have been running about in skinny jeans or going to Paris or things like that,” jokes Deirdre, a native of Porthall, Co. Donegal.

The devoted mother-of-four and grandmother-of-three has been involved in voluntary work with cancer charities for 30 years.

Little did Deirdre think back then, the personal insight she would gain into the illness and the empathy she shares with others.

“I first got involved in charity work with a lady now left us, Iona McFerran. My husband was doing work for her and she said to me, ‘Deirdre would you like to help me to take lunches to older people?’

“Iona was 75 at the time and I thought, you are my kind of gal! I thought if I could be anywhere as proactive even when I was 30, I would be doing all right.”

Deirdre worked in a voluntary role with people with learning disabilities at Iona House in Strabane, later getting a job at Strabane Day Centre. She also volunteered at St Patrick’s Hall Luncheon Club.

“That led me, again through Iona, to get involved with cancer charities. The work I did at that time was mainly fundraising; I thoroughly enjoyed it as I love being around people.

“I am still doing that for what seems like a lifetime but it somehow now feels more personal.”

One of Deirdre’s biggest fundraising achievements was organising Strabane’s first Strictly Come Dancing event for the Breast Screening Unit at Altnagelvin Hospital.

She fondly recalls: “Through the generosity of people in the North West, mainly Strabane and Derry, and with the help of the dancing teachers and St Pat’s Hall, we raised £14,000 plus.

“I can’t begin to explain how electric those two nights were; the whole of Derry and Strabane seemed to be buzzing. Mr Dace, the consultant surgeon, his wife, secretary and her husband, and nurses from the Breast Screening Unit came up and were all so amazed at the support given to them by local people.”

In 2009 Deirdre also fulfilled a life-long ambition to travel to Africa to help children in need and it proved to be a life-changing trip.

“The sights that I saw were so inhumane. We all hear about man’s inhumanity to man, but we don’t hear about man’s inhumanity to babies and children.

“It wasn’t the happy journey that I had expected but for me the consequences are part of what made me the person I am today.

“In 2010 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and again, the positive side of that is that the consultant who gave the diagnosis, Mr Gidwani, is the most amazingly kind, dedicated and professional person I have ever met and has made this journey much easier to walk.

“He is another one of the very special people I have met that I thank God for.”

Deirdre, wearing her green Macmillan T-shirt, has become one of the best known faces for the charity in the city.

She paid tribute to last year’s Mayor of Derry, Councillor Martin Reilly and his wife Bronagh for their support for Macmillan and her personally during his term in office when he raised an amazing total of £19,000 for his chosen charity.

Recalling her association with Macmillan, Deirdre said: “When I was in the Sperrin Suite having chemotherapy, I met a member of staff from Macmillan Cancer Support who just appeared at my side like an angel and asked if there was anything she could do to help me, and then was gone again, but left a lasting impression.

“About a year later I felt up to doing some voluntary work again and through Volunteer Now I met the lovely Maria Small, the Macmillan fundraising manager in this area.

“I had an immediate rapport with her and her own very easy, gentle way. She helped me to get back out doing the things I had enjoyed beforehand.

“The day I put on my green T-shirt saying, ‘We Are Macmillan Cancer Support’ I just felt, ‘Deirdre’s back!’ and I was excited about the future again.

“I am still wearing the T-shirt and I meet up with Maria on a regular basis. I am involved in different ventures for Macmillan and as with everything, I always believe that in helping others we help ourselves and that is definitely the case.

“I have the privilege now of being with people at the start of the journey I have been on for the past few years and it is an amazing privilege.

“I would just say to people that while cancer is a very scary word, in a lot of cases it is not the end, it is actually a beginning, a new way of life.

“In my case, there have been grandchildren; there has been Paris; there have been flights in a helicopter my family got me for one of my birthdays; there is love and there’s laughter and there are also of course some tears but hopefully no regrets.

“As I reflect on my life and the amazing people that I have met and hope to meet more of, I would like again just to thank my family for all their love and support and being everything to me that I have ever needed as a wife and mother.

“I would also like to thank all the medical people who have been involved in my care and that includes Drs O’Flaherty and Mullan and all the nursing staff in the treatment room and receptionists at Strabane Health Centre; all the medical and nursing staff at Altnagelvin Hospital who have been amazingly good and kind; but most of all I want to thank God for his goodness and mercy over these past 60 years.

“I am very thankful for the past four years because they could very easily not have happened and I would have missed so many beautiful people and wonderful things, and I trust God for the rest.

“In reality I think the person who registered my birth got it wrong and I am really 35 because that is how I feel.”