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Footballer Stephen Small lost his father to cancer then helped his mother recover from the illness - now he wants to give something back to NI Hospice

Stephen tells Stephanie Bell how he is helping raise cash for families just like his own

Published 30/09/2015

Motherly love: Irish League soccer star Stephen Small with his mum Mary
Motherly love: Irish League soccer star Stephen Small with his mum Mary
Tight knit: Stephen and partner Deborah Hill, mum Mary and from left, children Sam, Sophie, Daniel and Sarah-Louise
Close bond: Stephen’s mum and dad, Mary and Sean

Irish League soccer star Stephen Small only lost his dad four weeks ago and already he is doing what he can to show his gratitude to the Northern Ireland Hospice for their support to his family during his dad Sean's final weeks.

The well-known local sportsman will be joined by his children when he takes part in the charity's annual Twilight Walk on Friday in memory of his dad and to help raise funds and awareness for the hospice.

The 46-year-old's family has been through a traumatic few years as both his elderly parents battled cancer at the same time.

And he spoke from the heart when he says: "It was very much an easy decision for me to do the walk and try to raise money and give something back to the hospice.

"If me playing football and having a bit of a profile helps the charity in any way, then I will do what I can in an instant."

The renowned player and coach was a league winner while playing with Cliftonville FC and coached Carrick Rangers to promotion before joining Donegal Celtic as a coach in the Irish Premier League.

He stepped down from management when his dad was diagnosed with cancer, so that he could spend more time with his parents - a decision he is now grateful he made.

Today, he is still putting his sporting skills to good use as an elite coach at a football academy in Belfast Metropolitan College.

Yet, it is clear family comes first with Stephen and, even though his heart is broken at the loss of his dad, his focus now is on his grieving mum Mary (72) who is struggling to come to terms with life without her soulmate and husband of 49 years.

Stephen recalls with great admiration the strength of both his parents in battling cancer in the past few years.

It has been a very tough time for the entire family - fiancee Deborah (38), children Sam (16), Sarah-Louise (15), Daniel (10) and six-year-old Sophie and his brothers Sean and Frankie - as they watched first their dad and then their mum come through gruelling cancer surgery and treatment at the same time.

He adds: "Our focus is on mum at the minute, as she is suffering from cancer and grief as well. She was diagnosed over a year ago and has come through major throat and mouth surgery and then intensive radiotherapy.

"It has been a traumatic time. She has lost her life partner and we are just making sure she gets up every day, as I think at the minute she could take it or leave it.

Mum and dad were married for 49 years and were together for a few years before that and they were the type of couple who did everything together. Most of every day they spent with each other and it is a big void for mum.

"My fiancee, Deborah, was amazing, helping both mum and dad through it all.

"At the same time, we are trying to get on with day-to-day life with the kids going to school and work and coaching - and I miss my dad every single day."

Stephen speaks with admiration for his father Sean's tremendous courage in facing his cancer diagnosis head on.

Sean, who was 73, worked as a taxi driver and was a devoted family man. He developed sarcoma cancer three years ago. Sarcomas are rare cancers that develop in the muscle, bone, nerves, cartilage, tendons, blood vessels and the fatty and fibrous tissues.

Initially, Sean's appeared on his head and he thought it was a cut caused when he hit his head getting out of the car. When it didn't heal, he went to his GP, who very quickly referred him for tests with a diagnosis following soon afterwards.

He underwent major surgery on his head to remove the growth, resulting in the removal of part of his skull and then had to undergo numerous skin grafts. Stephen says: "He had a series of surgeries as more growths appeared - they just kept growing back.

"He had five surgeries from quite large operations to smaller ones and he just kept saying 'Whatever is needed to be done I will do it'.

"He never moaned about it and just got on with it. His attitude was that he would fight it for the sake of my mum and his family. "He just got on with life and he and mum continued as they always did and didn't let the cancer affect them."

After three years of constant surgeries, Stephen's dad was given the worst possible news in June when he was informed that a new growth could not be operated on. His body simply couldn’t tolerate any more surgery and, while chemotherapy was available, it was believed that it would have little if any success. Sean opted not to take it.

Stephen says: “He just accepted his fate.

“What has stuck with me and my mum and given us strength was something the priest said at dad’s funeral. He said there were usually five stages you go through when you are given a terminal diagnosis, the last one being acceptance and that dad had gone straight to acceptance and missed out the others such as denial and anger.

“That was dad, he never complained or wavered in his acceptance. He had his life with my mum and was proud of his family and grandchildren, and to him, that’s the way the chips had fallen for him.

“He gave us a lot of strength in the way he dealt with it.”

In those final weeks, Sean became a regular day patient at Whiteabbey Hospice, where he never ceased to marvel at the level of care he received.

“He had believed he would pass away at the hospice but, sadly his condition deteriorated so suddenly he had to be taken to Antrim Area Hospital, where he passed away surrounded by his family,” Stephen says.

The care and dedication of the Hospice staff is something which has had a big impression on Stephen, who has set up a Just Giving page to raise funds as a way of showing his gratitude — as he also will next week when he takes part in the Twilight Walk.

He says: “Dad enjoyed the company and the way people respected him and the medical care he received at the hospice which was second to none.

“The doctors had an unbelievable personal touch which made such a difference to dad and I would go down to have a cup of tea with him in the gardens and it was brilliant down there.

“My dad was a hard working man who loved a couple of drinks and lived for his family.

“He didn’t want to be a millionaire, he was a working class man, and his big achievement in life was his family — his three sons Sean, Frankie and myself and his grandchildren.”

As much respect and admiration as he has for his late dad, Stephen is also in awe of the strength his elderly mum had shown in the face of an aggressive cancer.

She was diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer and came through a 15-hour operation when part of her tongue had to be removed along with 25 lymphnodes in her throat.

She then had to go daily for six weeks to receive intensive radiotherapy on her throat — itself an intensive treatment which left her unable to eat and barely able to drink.

Stephen says: “Mum looked at my dad and I think she thought if he can do it and fight it then I should do the same.

“They just seemed to have this common bond of cancer — not that they needed anything else to bond them — and they just got on with it.

“When you visited their house, it could have been a very pessimistic, dark place to be — but it wasn’t.

“I looked forward to seeing them every day.

“They got on with their daily lives, even though they were managing pain and medication and it is amazing to me the way they didn’t let it affect them.

“Mum’s surgery was massive and she is not a young woman and the treatment she faced was also horrendous.

“Like dad, she never complained. She is the absolute rock of our family.” Stephen’s mum’s last scan six weeks ago revealed that she is clear of cancer, and she will be scanned every three months to check that the disease has not returned.

The family’s concern now is for her emotional well-being as she struggles to come to terms with the huge hole left in her life since Sean passed away.

Stephen says: “She has lost her soulmate.

“I couldn’t put into words how proud I am of her and how much we look up to my mum, as we did with my dad.

“We are now just trying to help her get through her grief.”

Stephen and his children will remember his dad and say thank you to the hospice by joining dozens of other grieving families for the annual Twilight Walk on Friday which focuses on celebration and remembrance.

Everyone taking part will wear glow-in-the-dark items of clothing for the walk around Titanic Quarter area.

All funds raised will go towards the fit out of the new adult hospice in Belfast which in total is costing £13m, and is largely funded by the public.

Stephen points out: “Anything I can do to promote the hospice and help raise funds, I am happy to do.

“I have been trying through Facebook and my Just Giving page where there already has been £640 donated in lieu of flowers for my dad’s funeral. I would encourage anyone to go on and donate and help.

“We had two people in our family suffering from cancer and maybe one day my mum might need the hospice although, hopefully, we will see her back to full health.

“I don’t know if people realise, unless they have needed the service, just how positive an experience the hospice gives to people with a terminal illness and their families.”

You can support Stephen and help the new hospice become complete by gong to

How you can help the hospice

  • Northern Ireland Hospice cares for 3,000 adults with life-limiting illnesses and their families each year. Demand for Hospice services in Northern Ireland is increasing and the charity is now caring for over 90% of patients in their own homes. Whilst hospice care is free to the patient, it is not free to provide and the charity relies heavily on support and donations from the public
  •  Following years of planning, NI Hospice is building a new Adult Hospice that meets the end of life care needs of the next generation. Construction work is now well underway on a purpose built facility at Somerton Road, north Belfast. The state-of-the-art hospice has been designed to care for people with complex needs and the growing numbers of people in need of end of life care
  • The new hospice will provide 18 modern single en-suite rooms, as well as peaceful gardens; a children and relatives area; a sanctuary and Chaplain’s room and space where patients and families can relax together during this important time
  •  A time-frame of 18 months was set and it is expected that the new hospice will be open and operational later this year
  •  The total cost of the project is £13m which includes design and building costs, furnishing and fittings and the costs of providing services to patients at Whiteabbey Hospital during construction
  •  Northern Ireland Hospice still needs to raise a further £1.6m to complete the project and are appealing to all sources of funding to help close this gap

Belfast Telegraph

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