For the love of Fintan: Belfast rugby player battling cancer says past year has been the best of his life
At 28, this Belfast rugby player has terminal cancer. Yet he says the past year has been his best ever. Why? The support of his wife. And the many friends and strangers behind a fundraising event tomorrow.
It's the last thing you expect to hear from a young person who is fighting terminal cancer yet Fintan Hillyard is talking straight from the heart when he describes the past year as the best of his life.
The reason for the 28-year-old's optimism is sitting beside him on the sofa of their immaculate new terraced home in south Belfast – his wife Rachael (25).
The young couple, who met less than two years ago, celebrated their love in a beautiful marriage ceremony surrounded by family and friends on April 6. Just a few weeks on and they are still enjoying that lovely honeymoon period when simply being together makes life special.
The tragedy behind their happiness is that Fintan is fighting for his life – and has been for the past 18 months. The trauma the couple have come through together has been colossal – their courage in dealing with it incredibly humbling.
And now they face an added challenge – having to raise funds to pay for treatment in Germany which is their only hope of saving Fintan's life.
The couple's search for help took them overseas after medical staff here exhausted every avenue open to them, even putting Fintan forward for trial treatments, only for the worst possible outcome when the cancer continued to spread.
To add even further to their ordeal, Fintan had to abandon his first course of treatment in Germany two weeks ago after he broke a bone in his neck while merely turning over in bed.
His vertebrae snapped because it had been weakened by the growth of a cancerous tumour on his neck.
He underwent emergency surgery and had two rods and five screws inserted in his neck and now his body – already weakened by two cycles of aggressive chemotherapy and a course of radiotherapy – is further restricted by a surgical collar.
Yet even this tragic setback has not dented this inspiring couple's determination and their admirable ability to look on the positive side.
Rachael says: "In a way we were lucky that it happened when Fintan was in bed because it was the second vertebrae in his neck and was very close to his spinal cord so if he had fallen or there had been any more impact he could have been left paralysed."
It was at Christmas in 2012 when Rachael, who is studying for a PhD in foreign policy at Queen's University in Belfast, met Fintan, a politics and sociology graduate at Edinburgh University, who was working on an internship with the Strategic Investments Board.
The couple were together just a few weeks when in February last year their world was turned upside down after Fintan collapsed while playing rugby.
Fintan had been a keen rugby player while at Methody College but had stopped during his 20s. He had just got back into the game when selected to play for Belfast Harlequins 1st XV in AIL division 1B against Bruff.
He recalls: "The Six Nations was on and some of the Firsts were called up for the full Ulster team so I got called up from the Seconds to play for the Firsts.
"I was in very good shape for the first time in years and also, for the first time since school, I was starting to believe that I could actually compete at this level.
"I had just scored when I felt an excruciating pain in my side and collapsed.
"I'd had a lump in my side for a while and had thought it was a hernia and was waiting for a referral from my GP.
"I was taken by ambulance to the Royal where they admitted me to do tests."
Just two days later Fintan was told he had an aggressive melanoma tumour in his abdomen which was Stage 4, the most advanced category.
It was all the more shocking because it was completely contrary to the common belief that skin cancer appears on the outside of the skin, where Fintan had no signs.
He says: "It was really hard to believe. It didn't make sense as I was leading such an active life.
"It's devastating but somehow you just cope and get on with it."
Fintan was given what was being hailed at the time as a new wonder drug but after four doses it was clear that it was not having any effect.
He was then offered a trial drug in Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he travelled a total of seven times from last November until February of this year.
Unfortunately it did not work either and the only alternative offered to Fintan was one he felt he couldn't take.
"They offered me another heavy duty chemo drug but they said the chances of it having any effect were one in 10," he says.
"They told me it would be very harsh and would have a big impact on my quality of life. We opted to continue to try and have some quality of life as I didn't think that being made very ill by something that was supposed to help me made sense so we decided to try and find alternative treatments outside of the NHS."
His parents and Rachael began the difficult task of searching online and finally through friends learned of the clinic in Frankfurt where a combination of traditional cancer treatments and natural therapies was producing amazing results for people with secondary cancer.
Rachael says: "Searching online was a minefield because there are so many conflicting stories about the treatments we were finding.
"It was an emotional battle and again we were fortunate that friends had experience and told us about the treatment in Frankfurt which involves using conventional chemo alongside innovative heat therapy which is supposed to shock the cancer cells into no longer being able to survive."
Within just two weeks of making contact with the clinic's lead consultant Dr Alexander Herzog arrangements were being made for Fintan and Rachael to travel to Germany.
Throughout it all, the many hurdles they faced were bringing the young couple even closer together and in February, during a romantic trip to the Lough Erne Resort in Enniksillen, Fintan proposed to Rachael.
Rachael didn't hesitate and together they typically decided that an early wedding was the tonic everyone needed to cheer them up.
Rachael says: "We organised a wedding in record time. We just thought life is too short and why wait.
"Everyone had been so down and there was so much gloom that we wanted a celebration, an enjoyable occasion, something that everyone could enjoy."
Fifty guests celebrated their marriage at a reception in the Merchant Hotel in Belfast with 50 more joining them for an evening party.
While it was a joyous day, it left Fintan so exhausted that he had to spend his first week of married life resting at home.
For this young couple there was no romantic honeymoon as instead they packed their bags in preparation for their trip to Frankfurt, three weeks after their big day.
Fintan's parents footed the £10,000 bill for the first course of treatment which tragically had to be abandoned halfway through because of his neck injury.
Now friends have rallied round to help the couple organise a huge event tomorrow to help meet the costs of further treatment.
Fintan's club Harlequins is hosting a Festival of Rugby which aims to encapsulate all that is exciting about the sport with three separate tournaments staged across the day with hundreds of girls, boys and seasoned players all taking part.
A Facebook group, Festival of Rugby, was set up to promote the event and in the first 12 hours, 385 people had signed up in support of the couple.
Thanks to a huge effort by their friends, the event is shaping up to be a superb day with 24 tag rugby teams and 18 under-7s teams.
Personalities from the world of sport have also given Fintan their support by donating a range of items for a charity auction on the night with signed Ryder Cup T-shirts from Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell among many prize items up for grabs.
It is hoped people across the province will drop in tomorrow to enjoy a spectacle of rugby or come along in the evening for some live music and the charity auction.
The couple have been completely overwhelmed and greatly encouraged by the level of support and love from friends.
"We had no choice but to organise the fundraising and our friends have been incredible," says Fintan.
"It's not easy putting yourself out there and asking for help and I did feel a bit uncomfortable about it.
"But the response has been overwhelming. All the messages on Facebook, many from people I hadn't spoken to in years showing such love, is just fantastic.
"The money means I have the option of going back to Frankfurt and getting the treatment and that is a big pressure off us as we don't have to worry about financing it."
Fintan and Rachael are coping by taking one day at a time. Before the treatment started to take its toll on Fintan around six months ago, they decided to pack as much fun as they could into their lives, attending music festivals, concerts and just living life to the full.
They also took part in a 5km fun run together to raise money for a cancer charity.
Fintan says: "It's devastating but I just don't think about it. I don't see the point in dwelling on it as it is not something I can change. You get a new perspective on life and you learn to enjoy the simple things liking walking the dog, having a cup of coffee in the sunshine or even the rain. Having our own home and being able to invite friends round is wonderful.
"Last year was one of the happiest years of my life. When I was first diagnosed we tried to have as much fun as we could and went to everything we wanted to and did as many things as possible.
"For the past six months I haven't had the energy and I can't really do much anymore.
"I met Rachael before my diagnosis and having someone to share your life with makes it much more enjoyable. Getting married and moving into this house together, you feel like proper adults and it's been great."
Rachael has been by Fintan's side every step of the way and the love the pair have for each other continues to carry them through their ordeal with an easy smile on their faces.
Fintan says: "When I was first diagnosed I told Rachael I would understand if she walked away but she didn't hesitate and her answer was 'no way'.
"There are days when you feel a bit sorry for yourself and on those days she will tell me to stop it. With the neck brace now, she has to help me get dressed and for her that means stepping into a whole new role.
"She is having to do so much stuff and I can't help."
For Rachael there was never a doubt in her mind about being there for Fintan even though they had known each other for such a short time.
She says: "There was never a question in my mind about it.
"I don't think at the start I understood the gravity of the situation and I thought he would get better in time, but it just makes you more determined to come out the other end of it.
"I had no real doubts even though many people in my life told me that I didn't need to do it.
"It is tough – there is no denying that at all.
"We have each other and our friends and family and that helps make it more bearable."
Bid for sports history and help Fintan
Up for grabs at tomorrow's auction for Fintan are:
- Ryder Cup T-shirt signed by Darren Clarke, Rory McIlory and Graeme McDowell
- Cricket bat signed by Ireland and Sri Lanka teams
- Stade Francais signed jersey
- Signed Jamie Dornan photograph
- Jayawardena's Sri Lanka one-day top signed by the cricket team
- Surrey top signed by Ricky Ponting
- Spurs Stadium Tour for two
- Johnnie Beattie's Six Nations jersey from Ireland v Scotland 2/2/14 signed by the team
- A signed picture of Ulster's Six Nations winners 'The Pride of Ulster'
- Heineken Cup final ball signed by the victorious Toulon team and Jonny Wilkinson in his penultimate professional game
- Ian Madigan's Heineken Cup Leinster jersey signed by the Squad, including Brian O'Driscoll
- Signed Munster jersey
- Niall Morris' Leicester Tigers match jersey signed by the squad
- Johann Muller's jersey from the 2011/2012 Heineken Cup signed by the legend himself
- Fred J Malcolm jewellery – a pearl necklace, a sterling silver oval brooch featuring the famous Art Nouveau artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh's rose motif, a sterling silver pendant on chain by Scottish designers Ortak, craftsmen from the Orkney Islands
- A Champions League ball signed by members of the Barcelona team
- Cristiano Ronaldo's signed Manchester United top
Bids can also be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org by tomorrow
How you can join in tomorrow
- The Fintan Hillyard Festival of Rugby at the home of Belfast Harlequins in Deramore Park kicks off at 9am until late. Events include:
- 9am – children's tournament
- 11am – Tag tournament
- 3pm – 7s tournament
- 12 noon – barbeque
- 11am – live music starts and continues throughout the day until late
- 8.30pm – live auction although silent bids will be accepted throughout the day