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'Finding out I had cancer was awful, but it also meant I took the career break I'd never have taken, saw much more of my kids... and had time for those DIY jobs'

By Stephanie Bell

Published 16/08/2016

Survival instinct: Michael advises to always get symptoms checked out
Survival instinct: Michael advises to always get symptoms checked out
Home ties: Michael Heinicke with wife Catherine and sons Sam (5), Oscar (3) and Finn (9 months)
Time out: the family enjoyed a trip to Disneyland
Family man: Michael with young son Oscar

Michael Heinicke's positive attitude to a shock cancer diagnosis at 32 has helped him bounce back. Now he's encouraging others to stay off booze for a month to aid fight against disease.

A father-of-four who was diagnosed with cancer when he was just 32 is urging men and women to ditch alcohol and become dryathletes during the month of September.

Michael Heinicke, from Bangor, is hoping people will get on board and take a month-long break from booze to raise money for cancer research.

Cancer Research UK's Dryathlon is an annual fundraising campaign that, after a summer of boozy holidays and 'one too many' at weddings, invites social drinkers to kick-start a new season by going booze-free for September.

Adding his weight to the campaign Michael (35), a chartered accountant, says: "I'm urging everyone to register now and become a Dryathlete for Cancer Research UK.

"They can achieve personal glory by banning the booze for a month and raising money for lifesaving research."

Michael, who is married to Catherine (35), also a chartered accountant, and has four children, George (10), Sam (5), Oscar (3) and Finn (nine months) knows all too well how important research carried out by Cancer Research UK is to people like him.

Just over two years ago - ironically, on World Cancer Day - he discovered a lump that turned out to be non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

He says: "On the morning of February, 4 2014, I woke to find a very large lump on my neck.

"I saw my GP two days later and he suspected an inflamed salivary gland.

"But when the antibiotic he gave me didn't work, he referred me to a specialist."

The consultant felt the lump was not sinister, as it had appeared too quickly - most likely a cyst - but decided to run some more tests to be certain.

However, when Michael returned for his results on February 21 expecting to be told he had a cyst, he was stunned to be told he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

He explains: "I had never even heard of it and the magnitude of the situation only dawned on me when he started to explain I would need chemotherapy.

"It was an out of body experience, it was like he was talking to me but he was meant to be speaking to somebody else, but there was nobody else there. I had not the faintest idea what chemotherapy actually entailed, but my initial reaction was that this was something very bad."

Michael underwent surgery just two weeks later to remove a large chunk of the lump on his neck, and he commenced chemotherapy on March 31.

He says: "I had always imagined it would be quite intrusive treatment, and it had negative connotations with me; like something you do before you die. But, thankfully, I was wrong.

"The treatment was actually okay. I waited and waited for the hurricane to start but it didn't happen. I suppose it's taking away that word 'chemo' and the stigma that goes with it, but for me it was nothing more than a few injections, really. I didn't feel sick or tired or anything like that. I felt grand. I did feel very hungry, though, but I like eating so that was fine.

"The amazing thing was that within two days of my first chemo my neck started to tingle and, within a week, I could not see the lump any more.

"My hair fell out, but I wasn't bothered about that - it actually grew back halfway through my treatment - and I suddenly had gone from having straight hair to curly, a bit like a Seventies perm."

In fact, Michael's positive attitude helped him to make the most of his time off work battling his illness.

He even found time to discover a new hobby and to acquire a new skill as a football coach, and now enjoys being a volunteer coach at Ards FC Academy.

"I had six months off work which, on reflection, turned out to be the career break I would have never got around to taking (or wouldn't have been able to afford)," he admits.

"I saw my kids loads more than normal, I watched more of the 2014 World Cup than I could have hoped for, I did DIY jobs that I wouldn't have previously had time to do. We took the kids to Disneyland Paris between chemo 3 and 4, and I walked about like a normal person with kids, albeit with a very shiny head.

"I even did a couple of football coaching courses with the Irish FA and started coaching junior football. All this while I was still having chemo."

A final scan in September showed that he was in full remission, and he now has to return to hospital for a check-up every six months for five years.

In fact, despite the treatment and surgery, and the shock of his diagnosis, he says he felt so well that he went back to work in September "revived, fitter, fresher and with a much more positive mentality to everything".

He continues: "It's easier to pick out the positives when you get a bit of perspective."

Michael urges anyone with symptoms to make sure they get them checked out.

And, of course, he feels grateful that his cancer was treatable, and is very aware that others are not so lucky.

He says: "I would say to anyone worried about unusual symptoms to go and see your doctor. I hear statistics about how many people will get cancer at some stage and the percentage seems to be going up and up.

"I'd like more of those cases to be like my type of cancer because, thanks to the good work of Cancer Research UK and others, it turned out to be very winnable.

"Yes, it is bad being diagnosed with cancer, but my experience has taught me to respect the disease and do what the doctors tell you - fearing it is counterproductive.

"Early diagnosis is vital but it need not be a negative experience or something to be frightened of; mine was just a case of taking some good medicine, which worked a treat, and then getting on with life."

Michael is hoping that by sharing his story people will be encouraged to make the effort to raise funds for more research by taking part in Dryathlon.

Dryathletes pledge to stay 'dry' for a month and either get sponsored or donate the money they would have spent on alcohol.

Supporters can register to take part in Dryathlon as individuals or set up a team by getting friends, colleagues or relatives involved to motivate each other along the way.

Last year an impressive 1,816 men and women in Northern Ireland took part, raising a fantastic £153,271 to help beat 200 types of cancer.

Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Northern Ireland, says: "We're delighted that Michael is helping us to highlight Dryathlon this September. We hope he will inspire others to say 'cheers to no beers' and sign up today.

"Many of us may have overindulged during the summer months - sofa-surfing while watching the bumper crop of sports competitions or sipping cocktails on holiday. By making a commitment now to be booze-free for September, everyone can kickstart a healthier autumn.

"And despite what people might think, going dry doesn't have to be dull. We're asking people to give up the sauce, not their social life, and there are plenty of fun ways to enjoy 30 hangover-free days."

For those who think the challenge sounds a bit too daunting, or have a wedding or party to attend, there's a special 'tipple tax'. So if a Dryathlete falls off the wagon, they can donate a £20 penalty.

Jean adds: "It takes stamina and real commitment to stay the course. We hope family and friends will rally round and support our Dryathletes to go the distance as they summon the willpower to ban the booze for a brilliant cause.

"So, whether they're new to the dry challenge or back to defend their title, we're urging men and women to sign up now to drop the drink in September and help beat cancer sooner."

Every hour someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer. Dryathlon aims to raise money to accelerate ground-breaking research to help more people survive. To take on Dryathlon in September, visit www.dryathlon.org

Belfast Telegraph

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