Joe McColgan is one of Cancer Fund for Children’s Young Ambassadors. Having graduated from our support, he volunteers his time and experience to mentor other young people whose lives have been affected by cancer.
Joe recently spoke to Cancer Fund for Children Specialist Neil to hear about how cancer has affected him, how the charity benefitted him and ways the public can get involved to support their work.
Neil: Tell me a bit about yourself and when you first found out you had cancer?
Joe: I’m Joe McColgan. 21 years old from Derry. I first found out I had cancer when I went to the hospital with excruciating shoulder pain at the age of 16. This was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. It got that bad that I initially refused to go to the doctor because I was dreading raising my arm to take my 3 jumpers off. Bear in mind there was snow in Derry at this time, even in March! Luckily, mother’s intuition kicked in and she forced me to go! From there I was sent to A&E where I was x-rayed and bloods were taken. A couple of days later I was hit with the news. Not ideal when I was due to go to the cinema that night!
N: Can you tell me a bit about your treatment?
J: What a roller-coaster my treatment was! Whisked straight off to Belfast the next morning and told I would be put on a course of chemo-therapy. I took the approach where I didn’t want to know much about my treatment so I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what chemo drugs I was getting. 4/5 weeks later I was told they had managed to put my Leukaemia into remission. I was told I could go home for a while as soon as my blood counts rose. That took weeks which was an absolute nightmare. Finally the day came. However, this joy was short lived as when home I discovered a lump.
Back to Belfast! I was put on another intense course of chemo and told I would most likely require a bone marrow transplant. The weeks go by and I’m eventually told that they were unable to rid my body of the cancer.
By this stage alarm bells are going, I was only 16 I wasn’t prepared to die. Then a week or two later I’m in town with my mates and receive a phone call saying I need to be in Belfast the next morning. From my experience that was never good.
10th December 2013, I’m in Belfast facing Dr.Finnegan awaiting the bad news. He tells me my bone marrow samples were sent to Scotland to be scrutinized. Turns out there was no cancer cells in my body. That feeling was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and I doubt I’ll ever feel elation like that again. I was told the same day that a bone marrow donor had been found and I’d be going to Glasgow in January for this.
I went to Glasgow and underwent more intense courses of chemo and radio therapy. The next 5 weeks were the toughest of my life. I reached rock bottom at this stage and I’d had enough of the life I was living.
This may be a tough read but this is the harsh realities that some people faced with a cancer diagnosis face. I had asked the nurses in Yorkhill to just cease my treatment and allow me to go home. Luckily for me they were having none of it. I had a chat with the child psychologist in Yorkhill hospital that night, and I genuinely believe that she saved me that night and I will be forever grateful towards her. I eventually finished my treatment and got home.
From there I’ve went from strength to strength. As much as I hated the journey I went on, I wouldn’t change it and it’s led me to where I am now. So in a weird way, I’m grateful for the experiences I went through. I wouldn’t have gotten involved with the great people at Cancer fund for Children otherwise!
N: How did this affect you? Did this have an impact on your education and friendships?
J: It knocked me for six! I was sixteen years old. Playing football every day, more than once most days and had never drank alcohol or smoke a cigarette. Apart from my fondness for a potato waffle I thought I was in peak health.
Getting told I had cancer was the last thing I ever expected. For the first while I struggled to come to terms with it and was in complete disarray. I had to leave school as my treatment was to start immediately. At first, I was delighted about this. Like most people at 16, I didn’t anti anxiety care much for school.
But as time went on I began to miss being around my mates every day. I was lucky, and continue to be, in terms of my friends. I have a very close circle of friends and have had since I was about 12. If they are reading this they will know exactly who they are. Those boys rallied around at my toughest time and never left my side and anything I ever needed they were more than happy to help with. I take great pleasure in telling anyone I know how immensely lucky I am to have the friends that I have.
I would genuinely go to the ends of the earth and back for my mates. For everything they have done for me I will be forever grateful.
N: Can you tell me how your Cancer Fund for Children Specialist supported you?
J: By just being a companion through what I was going through. They helped me realise that, although I was having a rough time, there is hope and the support I need is out there. I was shown to not let anything get me down too much and to just focus on the good in my life.
The Cancer fund for Children Specialists are among the finest people I have ever met.
While I grew up idolising footballers, I now count these people among my heroes in life.
N: Tell us about your experience at Cancer Fund for Children’s residential centre Narnia?
J: Narnia! What an absolutely magical place. It’s hard to describe Narnia to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. Every time I go there it’s as if any worry or problem I have disappears for that while.
Waking up at the foot of the mountains every morning and looking out into them is genuinely one of my favourite things on this planet.
The thing about Narnia is that everyone using it is going through a very tough period in their lives but everyone is there relaxed with a smile on their face. From the location to the staff and volunteers who work there, Narnia is a small piece of heaven buried in the back roads of Newcastle.
N: How did you benefit from meeting other young people going through cancer?
J: It helped me realise that I’m not alone in what I’m going through. I met people who had been through what I had been through and were out the other end. This provided me with a sense of hope and a belief that I was going to make it through.
I was on an adult ward at the age of 16, and for a long time I was, by a considerable margin, the youngest person on the ward. While the people on the ward were fantastic and I met some great people there and still keep in touch with them, being able to connect with people my own age or similar was a great help as I felt they had a better understanding of what I was going through.
N: What was the biggest difference support from Cancer Fund for Children has had on your life?
J: The support I have received has genuinely changed my overall look on life. A lot of the time when people are talking to someone who has suffered from cancer they take a tentative approach. I found a lot of people were treating me slightly differently.
The Cancer Fund for Children Specialists have this fantastic way of helping you deal with problems you may be having without you actually realising it. It’s only upon reflecting you realise what has happened and it’s amazing. They have given me a new positive outlook on life, and I’m a much happier person all round for it!
N: Why did you become a Cancer Fund for Children Young Ambassador?
J: Cancer fund for children has helped me in so many ways, and for that I am extremely grateful. If I can help even young person in the way I have been helped then I would be over the moon. I’m now fortunate enough where I am in a position to give back. That’s something I intend to grasp with both hands.
N: What would you say to people to encourage them to take part in our ‘All Wrapped Up’ Christmas Campaign?
J: Everybody will be touched by cancer in one way or another in their lives. Why don’t we all join the fight and have some fun while doing so? Plus, its freezing this time of the year so well be ‘All wrapped up’ anyway! Let’s raise some money while doing so!
You can get All Wrapped Up with friends, family or work colleagues this Christmas by signing up here.
Every penny you raise will support children and young people just like Joe who have been affected by cancer.