“On June 6 I’d been feeling kind of sick. I knew something was wrong so I got the endoscopy that night and was told there was a mass in my stomach. On June 20 I was told I had stomach cancer.”
Tara Boyle embarked on the first steps of a terrifying personal journey familiar to many readers and their loved ones a year ago this week.
By midsummer 2017 she knew she had stomach cancer and was told chemotherapy wasn’t an option; gastrectomy the only course. Within weeks four fifths of her stomach and a malignant tumour were removed.
A common story, sadly, but what’s remarkable is Tara survived her own cancer crisis while spearheading the development of the Macmillan Support Centre at Agnes Jones House at Altnagelvin.
Three months after beating the illness she was back at work in time for the centre’s opening in October 2017
And she’s there today supporting fellow survivors and sufferers as the Macmillan Health and Well Being Campus Manager.
“I’m not saying I understand what people are going through when they come in here but I do understand it a wee bit better,” she says.
“Obviously, I didn’t have chemo or radiotherapy but I did experience that cancer journey, the surgery, and all the rest, so I know how important it is to have information and support.”
Tara was all geared up for the handover and opening of the drop-in centre in which she’d invested so much when cancer struck last year.
“I was project manager for the capital build so I was working on this project for about two and a half years getting everything ready in the building, picking furniture, picking colours, working with the design team.”
Like many survivors she had been entirely oblivious to the abnormal cell growth within until it could no longer be ignored and life-saving surgery was needed.
“It was completely out of the blue. I ran the last five miles of the Belfast Marathon on May 1 last year. On May 13 I’d done another charity run in Omagh.
“It was after that I was thinking, God, I really don’t feel well and I was just being sick all the time.”
Initially, gastroenteritis was suspected. She had booked a holiday to Portugal and was persuaded to head off and enjoy herself.
“I stayed one day because I was so sick I was ruining the holiday for everyone else.”
When she returned to Ireland for that fateful endoscopy and diagnosis nothing in her years of working at the Western Trust had prepared her for what followed.
“It was a bit of a shock. I had surgery at the start of July. Meanwhile, all of this was going on. It was at a key point in the project coming up to the handover and I was lying in my hosptial bed thinking I was missing it all. I came back to work at the start of October on a phased return so I was here when the opening took place.
“I was very lucky. The type of cancer I had I didn’t need chemo. The cancer I had doesn’t respond to chemotherapy so surgery was the only option. I had four fifths of my stomach removed.”
Today Tara feels privileged to have survived and to be in a position to help others undertaking similar journeys to her own.
Between October 2017 and March 2018, when the film and theatre star Adrian Dunbar cut the ribbons at the official launch of the centre, over 2,000 people had already been through its doors.
“We are getting busier all the time. We do counselling, wig-fitting, prosthesis, complementary therapies, gentle exercise for cancer and other long term conditions.
“It’s really an information and support centre, a drop in centre, that’s the key thing. Maybe people think you have to have an appointment to come in here. Yes, you do need an appointment if you are coming in for counselling, but you don’t otherwise.”
Tara emphasises the partnership between all the various cancer charities in the area and the Western Trust itself, which is central to the hub’s ethos. But mainly it’s all about providing a comfortable non-clinical space for people to get the help they need.
“A woman came in a few weeks ago and said it had taken so much to even walk through the door. She’d been through her cancer journey about two years ago. She said she just wanted to be able to talk to somebody who understands. It’s good for me to be able to listen.”
Tara’s door’s open. Visit the Macmillan Support Centre, Altnagelvin, Glenshane Road, Derry. BT47 6SB Telephone direct: 028 7161 1272.