It’s an overcast morning when I meet respected businessman Eamonn Gee at the City Hotel. The weather seems appropriate for discussing cancer, considering more than 1 in 3 people in the UK will develop some form of it during their lifetime.
However, it’s clear within minutes of meeting Eamonn that cancer did not, and does not, define him.
Now aged 57, Eamonn’s testicular cancer diagnosis came 26 years ago, when he was aged just 31.
He explains, “I was an avid runner, and I ran a lot. So I initially thought I had a pulled muscle. But it wasn’t going away and it was a chance conversation with my brother-in-law, who was a GP, that led to me getting it checked out.
“He insisted that a pulled muscle should not be persisting for so long and that it sounded like something else.
“On the back of his advice I booked myself in to see my own GP the following Monday. He examined me and sent me for a scan. Everything after that moved very quickly. “
The timescale was so swift in fact that Eamonn was booked in for surgery just two days later and he found himself at Belvoir Park Hospital in Belfast the following Monday.
He continues, “They removed two small tumours and then I was sent for 28 sessions of radiotherapy.
“These were to take place the day after each other but the machine kept breaking down, so in the end I was there for well over my alloted time.”
And time at this stage was tight as Eamonn goes on to say that his wedding to Patricia was to take place just a wee later.
“My wedding was around the corner but I don’t remember feeling under pressure - that was more my wife’s domain!”
This attitude, it becomes clear, was how he tackled the entire diagnosis.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, and worrying about what lay ahead, Eamonn instead accepted the treatment plan, saying, “I trusted that my medical team knew what they were doing.”
In fact, he doesn’t even remember them giving him a prognosis.
“It’s not something I remember being told. I think I was quite naive. I simply accepted that the surgery and radiotherapy had done what it had to do. I didn’t even think about it not working.”
The weeks and months that followed involved regular check-ups. Their frequency at the start, combined with his recent radiotherapy treatment, meant that Eamonn and his wife had to miss their honeymoon in Greece.
“We went to Fermanagh instead, where we hired a cruiser for a week - and spent most of it in the pouring rain!”
Throughout all of this his family were a constant support, with various family members taking him to appointments in Belfast.
On one such trip he remembers taking a liquid that was needed in order to carry out a CT scan properly. “It was disgusting stuff but I swigged it back and got myself up to the head of the queue. My sister wanted to go into the city centre shopping but once we got there I realised that this liquid was best not swallowed quickly - let’s just say I needed a bathroom very quickly!”
Other than that, he recalls his cancer diagnosis and treatment with little sentimentality or worry.
It was only down the line when his diagnosis became a more pressing issue.
“It had been mentioned to me that my fertility might be affected by the radiotherapy but children weren’t on my radar. I suppose it was a case of ‘What you don’t have, you don’t miss.’”
Eamonn’s business was also in its infancy as he developed his first shop in the Waterside, and his mind was focussed on making it a success.
However, six years after his cancer diagnosis, and his wedding to Patricia, the couple had no children.
He assesses: “It was starting to cross my mind that perhaps the treatment for the testicular cancer was having an impact. Patricia and I even discussed adoption.”
Thankfully the couple soon fell pregnant and they now have four children, Emma (20), Sarah (19), Hannah (16) and Edward (14).
Business-wise the cancer was also making itself felt, but in a very different way than you might expect.
Eamonn explains, “It was becoming an issue when I was applying for loans to start off my business. Medical checks were always bringing up the cancer. In the end, I said to one doctor, ‘Do you know if you have cancer, because I know I don’t!’ Constant checks were always bringing me up as clear, and six years after the surgery I was officially in remission.”
Eamonn does reflect that ten years before he was diagnosed his chances of survival were around 70%.
“I didn’t ask about my survival rate but it’s good to know that nowadays, because of research, there’s now a 95% survival rate.”
He also acknowledges that he was very lucky to have caught his cancer in time, especially given that testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men aged 25-49 in the UK.
“I had noticed a slight swelling but there were no obvious lumps. It was simply the pain that I thought was a pulled muscle that alerted my GP.”
In this respect he would encourage all men to listen to their bodies and go for a check-up if something doesn’t seem right.
“Thankfully, cancer hasn’t troubled me since but I would always stress that check-ups are important.”
And with that he goes back to his shop where he’s been in business for 25 years., “I’m a shopkeeper at heart, I can’t stay away for too long!”
First published on 16 May 2014