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Fintan's legacy: How money raised in memory of an inspiring young Northern Ireland rugby player is now bringing happiness to others

Alison Fleming talks to his widow and those who have been helped by Fintan's Fund

Rachael Dickson Hillyard (28), from Belfast, works part-time in Student Guidance at Queen's University and is finishing a PhD in Law. She founded Fintan's Fund following the death of her husband Fintan in December 2014 just eight months after they married with the goal of making memories for young people aged 18-35 currently receiving or recovering from treatment for cancer. She says:

Fintan and I met when I was 23 on a Christmas night out in 2012, just four months before he was diagnosed with cancer after he collapsed in agony on the pitch during a rugby match.

"It was metastatic malignant melanoma, and, although usually associated with the skin, there were no outward signs he had the disease. It was so unexpected. He was 27, had just got a good job with the Strategic Investment Board, and he was playing rugby. The cancer diagnosis knocked the wind from our sails.

"He had a range of treatments, including a clinical trial, and it was a bit chaotic because about two weeks after our wedding in April 2014 Fintan headed off to Germany for experimental treatment, so it wasn't the honeymoon that most married couples experience.

"While we were there he suffered a pathogenic fracture to his neck due to the cancer and had to have emergency surgery, which meant he wasn't well enough to proceed with any of the treatment. From that point, it was a case of symptom management until he passed away in the December of that same year.

"For us it was a whirlwind of living all the major life events in a very short space of time. We spent a lot of time making memories together, and we were very fortunate that was something which was available to us. We knew that not everyone in those circumstances had the opportunity to do what they wanted with that level of freedom.

"We had very supportive family and friends who allowed that to happen.

"After Fintan broke his neck, there was a massive fundraiser at his rugby club, Belfast Harlequins, to try and raise money for him to go back out to Germany, but because he was unwell it just couldn't happen.

"He did have experimental treatment in Dublin, but there was a lot of money left over and that's basically where the fund came from.

"We explored a range of options, including giving to an existing charity funding research or medical support, but we felt among family and friends that while it's such great work - and of course vital to anyone with cancer - that wasn't the thing that really made the most difference.

"What made us feel empowered and in control was by engaging in quality time as a family and friendship group. We wanted to support other people to be able to do that.

"How Fintan lived his life, and how anyone would talk about him, was all about making the most of the moment. He travelled a lot, loved music festivals and, when things changed for him, he was able to shift what he got his enjoyment out of.

"He took a real interest in food and nature, with the simple things becoming important to him. Even if he was just in one room, he could find something that was a shift in focus from the reality of his situation, something he could latch on to.

"As a couple, we went away on a few weekends to spa hotels, and houses in the countryside and by the beach. We loved cooking together and got involved in local events like Belfast Restaurant Week.

"We also travelled to the Edinburgh Festival and saw some comedy shows, and we did a lap of Ireland, which was amazing. Fintan and I only got two flights together in our lives, one to Edinburgh and one to Germany for his treatment, which really shows just what you can do on the island of Ireland!

"That's the key to Fintan's Fund, creating those memories for other people. When cancer comes into your life, you realise that you're not alone, and hear about the many other people that it is a reality for.

"It's about supporting them day to day and how can you give them something that will matter and make a difference to their lives.

"Fintan made the most of every day and the people in his life. He felt that it was really important for him to have a sense of his personality so he wasn't defined by his illness and he could still relate to everyone on a level and keep a bit of himself.

"Grief is a strange thing, and since his death there have been times you think you're fine, then realise you actually aren't. I'm now getting ready to hand my PhD (work) in, and there was a time when I thought I was never going to go back to it.

"I don't know what coping means, but it's still hard. Being young and having something like this happen to you is tough because it's difficult to find people that can relate to it. Having Fintan's Fund is positive in that sense, although when other people are hitting milestones together I realise that we didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the same things in the fullness of time.

"Neil McCready and I have been friends since we were children, so the fact that something so similar is happening to him and his family is horrifying to me, because you think you're going to be the only one in the circle (of friends) that it would happen to.

"It was great to be able to offer them something beyond words, and there have been other families that we've been able to help, like the family we sent over, via helicopter, to a ploughing event in England. That was their interest and to be able to fly there meant so much to them.

"The work done by Fintan's Fund does seem to have meaning for people, which is really lovely. It's a community based on kindness and humanity in a world where sometimes things happen that make you question their very existence.

"I definitely still take a lot of Fintan's mentality with me, that life is to be enjoyed. Fintan didn't get the chance to do that, so it's almost more important to me to enjoy the life that we've been given."

‘Fund provides real voice for younger people with cancer’

Neil McCready (28) lives in Dunmurry with wife Sarah and son Myles (3), and has been a close friend of Rachael's since childhood. Medically retired from his job in the DVLA, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at the beginning of last year. He says:

I went to A&E on New Year's Day 2016 with a pain in my neck, and the doctor asked to do a chest X-ray which found shadows showing up on my lungs.

"I then went for biopsies, and the cancer was diagnosed as synovial sarcoma. It all originated in my right foot and spread to my lungs, which has made it terminal.

"I receive chemotherapy every three weeks and have had a number of different types. I'm currently on the fourth type of chemotherapy treatment, and I've just had further scans done to find out if it's working, which it hasn't done so far.

"The treatment up until now hasn't been shrinking the lesions, just keeping them at bay with one or two growing in size.

"The first prognosis I received after initially being told I had cancer was for 18-24 months, which will take me to 17th April 2018. Obviously, I'm pushing past that and trying to go as far as I can.

"Physically I'm well, and although the first week of chemo makes me feel nauseous, the two weeks following treatment I feel fantastic and I try my best to do whatever I can.

"Before my diagnosis I was quite into my golf, but because the illness is in my feet it makes it difficult to walk so I can't do it anymore.

"It was very hard after I learned that I had cancer, trying to get my head around it, and I know my family found it tough. Now, though, as time progresses, my family and friends are telling me how well I'm looking and getting on with it, and because of that they're perking up themselves a bit.

"Everybody has their down days and will be sad about it at some point, but at the minute they're looking on the positive side because I'm looking so well and not letting it bother me.

"Rachael is one of our very close friends, and we've known her for a long time. We were at her wedding, and when Fintan passed away we kept in contact to try and help out in any way we could.

"Whenever she set up the charity and heard about my illness she wanted to do something for me and the family. At the time I was really against it because I saw her as more of a friend and not a charity.

"I didn't want to take anything from her, and didn't feel I had a right to, but it was all done on the sly! Rachael contacted one of my best friends and organised a big day out for us, and by the time I found out about it, it was too late to object. Through Fintan's Fund, eight of us went to Todds Leap and did digger driving, off-road driving and rally driving.

"It was a fantastic day, with amazing weather and I was so thankful for everything. It shows me that there are individuals out there who do care, and go the extra mile to help people.

"When younger people get cancer the perception is that, because of their age, they can beat it. Fintan's Fund is a voice for younger people with cancer, and Rachael is doing her best to raise awareness and provide support.

"As well as my lads' day out, the charity has allowed me to enjoy good times with my family and we've been out for dinner, received cinema vouchers and an overnight stay in town for just me and my wife.

"Days out for families help make those all-important memories. That was Rachael's goal, and I can see now that was exactly what it's about."

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‘Our trip away allowed us to make precious memories’

Robyn Baxter (24), from east Belfast, works part-time in a veterinary clinic. Her husband Michael Baxter was a retail supervisor who died in October 2016, aged 25.

Michael had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer when he was only 23, and just a week after getting the news he had cancer in December 2014, we were told it was terminal. His illness was a huge shock for us, and we were put in touch with Fintan's Fund about a year after we got the news.

"Rachael told us that they could provide us with an opportunity to do something that Michael wanted to do. The one thing that he really wanted was to get away somewhere. Because of the constant hospital appointments after our marriage, we hadn't had the opportunity to spend any time away together.

"We had been engaged for a year before Michael was diagnosed, and had a date set for 2016, but moved it forward and got married on August 14, 2015.

"We didn't have time for a honeymoon, and Rachael asked if there was anywhere we'd like to go. We'd always wanted to spend time in Dublin, and Fintan's Fund organised everything including the transport back up and down, and a room at the Morgan Hotel, which was upgraded to a suite.

"Michael's treatment meant that he was at hospital twice a week for three weeks, so the trip meant everything to us as we got to spend a weekend away as a normal married couple who didn't have to think about hospital appointments, chemotherapy treatments or anything to do with the illness.

"Because of Michael's age, he fell outside the bracket for children's and young people's charities to help. Fintan's Fund provided us with the opportunity to make memories and have that normal time, giving us a break away from doctors and hospitals and everything that comes with a cancer diagnosis.

"It was the last break we had together, although we didn't realise it at the time. We went away to Dublin in April, and it was just a couple of months later in June that his health deteriorated before he died in October 2016.

"It's a weekend I'll never forget as it was the first time we had been away as a newly married couple, and the photographs we took during that trip are among the last taken of Michael before he died.

"For that couple of days in April last year the cancer wasn't the main focus and we just got to spend time together and have fun.

"It was a weekend of pure joy for both of us, able to live a somewhat normal life even in the face of his diagnosis. It gave Michael a boost of confidence and happiness."

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