This is an interview from 2004 with Frank Russell a co-founder of the LARCC Cancer Support Centre in Mullingar. There will be a Speaking Supper in aid of LARCC in Mullingar on 3 April. See http://www.speakingsupper.com for info
Every year in Ireland twenty one thousand people are diagnosed with cancer for the first time. So the chances are that if someone you know doesn’t have cancer, you yourself do. It’s a sobering thought. In my own family, there have been many deaths already and a few scares. One in three of those people diagnosed will die from cancer. So far, Frank Russell -who was diagnosed with cancer of the glands in his neck in 1998- is one of the lucky ones.
Like a typical man, he says, he hadn’t paid too much attention to the slight swelling on his neck.
‘The only time I noticed it was when I was shaving,’ he tells me. ‘It wasn’t painful, so I was going around it with the razor.’
A few weeks later, Frank went to his local GP with a minor chest ailment and happened to mention the swelling.
‘And he examined me and said I had swollen glands,’ Frank says. ‘I started to laugh because the last time I had heard the term swollen glands was when I was a child. It meant you didn’t have to go to school. It took a long time to get an appointment with a consultant, but during all this period I had no inkling that it was anything other than swollen glands.’
Frank eventually went to Beaumont hospital, where they did a scan and discovered a small disc, so a biopsy was taken of that and it came back benign.
‘ I was very happy,’ Frank tells me. A softly spoken man, tall and slender, he has come for our interview extremely well prepared, with notes and information. Because cancer, for Frank has been about opportunity, just as much as it has been about suffering. Frank co-founded the LARCC Cancer Centre where cancer patients can go for much-needed psychological support. But first things first.
The strange disc was removed. A couple of weeks later, Frank was summoned to Beaumont again.
‘ Professor Walsh informed me that they had found cancer in the tissue surrounding the object that had been removed,’ he says. ‘I was seriously dismayed. I couldn’t understand it, I asked him if he had mixed up the files.’
Frank reckons that most cancer patients experience the same sequence of emotions, upon hearing their diagnosis.
‘I had a rush of thoughts, as I sat in the chair and one of them was about my mortality. Even though the good professor didn’t say my number was up, I was very angry and hurt. I asked myself why me? When I simmered down and began to rationalise it, I realised that with the statistics of cancer in Ireland why not me?’
Frank had always been very fit, having been a pilot in the air corps. But he did have a couple of cigarettes with his pints on a Friday night.
‘I was dumb enough to think that a couple of cigarettes a week wouldn’t do me any harm,’ he says. Whatever about the cause, I say, it must be devastating to be diagnosed with cancer, because of the effect on your life of the diagnosis.
‘That is a terribly important point,’ he says. ‘ Your whole life is literally turned upside down. Whatever your plans you had are changed irrevocably forever.’
Did he get any kind of emotional support?
‘I am glad you asked me that,’ he says. ‘Because the reality is that being diagnosed with cancer is a two-fold thing. There is a physical and a psychological effect. But consultants are busy people and they don’t have a lot of time to listen to how it is affecting you emotionally.’
Frank was lucky enough to have had support from his family and friends, but not everyone has that support. And he points out that only someone who has been through the experience can really understand it.
‘The first time I went to the pub, after a rugby match was six months after I had been diagnosed,’ he says. ‘When I came into the bar, my friends were all in a group, chatting and laughing and one of them looked over in my direction. The smiles went off all their faces, to such an extent that I looked behind me to see what had caused this reaction!’
Having people look at you as if they are at your funeral is something cancer sufferers have to live with, Frank says.
Which is where the LARCC centre comes in. The LARCC Centre was the brain-child of a lady called Ita Bourke. Frank first met Ita at a ‘Living With Cancer’ course. Ita, who was in her thirties and had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Within a week, she had had a mastectomy. She went to the Bristol Centre in England for counselling, because there wasn’t a place in Ireland that offered it for cancer patients specifically. When she came back, she was determined to set up a similar centre in Ireland that would be affordable and accessible.
‘In my heart and soul I didn’t believe her, because I didn’t believe that in her present physical state she would have the time or the energy to do it,’ Frank says.
But Ita worked through the winter of 2001 to set up her cancer care centre. In the Spring of 2002, she rang Frank to ask him to get involved And he agreed. With consistent hard work and fundraising, a property was purchased in Mullingar and the centre was open for business in November of 2002. The first of its kind in this country, it aims to help people living with cancer to deal with the fear that accompanies their diagnosis.
‘The more love, kindness, care and understanding we receive and give, the less opportunity there is for fear to overcome us,’ their website says. ‘We cannot be in love and fear at the same time.’
A team of counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists offer a residential programme to patients.
The centre has been an unmitigated success, not least because simply meeting other people in the same boat and sharing your stories can be a very healing experience. It was Ita’s idea that ultimately there would be a centre in each province.
Ita died just days before the LARCC centre was officially opened. We cannot know the whys and wherefores of life and death. But Frank is still alive, and so is the dream that they shared, of helping people to get back to the way they were before they were diagnosed with cancer and their lives were turned upside down.
LARCC Cancer Centre, www.larcc.ie 044 71971 or 1850 719719