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Paul Martin: The day I told my children I had cancer

Northern Ireland journalist Paul Martin has spent his career writing about celebrities, but finding out that he is seriously ill has given him a reality check when it comes to what really matters - like spending time with his kids

Showbiz journalist Paul Martin
Showbiz journalist Paul Martin
Big support: Paul’s friend Emir Holohan
Paul Martin is putting the showbiz party life to one side while he battles against cancer

The strange thing was, I didn't feel numb or shocked or even worried. Just really pissed off. I mean REALLY, REALLY pissed off. This year started with a turgid battle in hospital with an auto immune problem that brought a crippling case of pneumonia to my door.

The recovery was epic and after putting on three stones I've been hitting the gym, running and having the greatest times with my children, who have never been closer to me.

"We've noticed a shadow that's got bigger. Probably nothing to worry about but we need to run further tests," said the anonymous voice at the end of the phone who had called from the quite magnificent Godsend that is the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

Two days later I'm on the third floor of the City Hospital. Free coffee, free tea, great doctors. Utter terror.

A 41-year-old dad-of-four who only the day before was pushing weights and running miles, trying to keep it together and, well, drinking free tea. Lots of it.

A close friend rang seconds before I was summoned to receive the cancer verdict. Her name is Emir. She comes from the same vacuous but utterly irresistible showbiz background as I.

She was Miss Ireland and was (and still is) a delightfully outspoken, bamboozingly intelligent and masterfully enlightened soul. She gifted me many a front page during my time as the Irish Mirror's showbiz editor, even though I had never met her and would probably have struggled to even remember her name other than 'That controversial Miss Ireland'.

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Her greatest anti-establishment crusade that graced the tabloids during her model years was demanding, on the front page of The Irish Sun, placard militantly in hand, that the then Irish leader Bertie Ahern 'Clean up your own sh**e' after his economic policies shafted the great farmers of our green and beautiful land.

Funnily enough, her true greatness has only touched my life during the past four months, when I've not exactly been a "great catch". Or indeed even top of the tree when it comes to potential friends.

Spending half the year so far in a hospital bed isn't exactly conducive to hanging out and raising a toast to the great times ahead. Somehow, she managed it.

She has a habit of calling every day to check how I am. That's enough for me. Quite a revelation in fact - selflessness they call it, apparently.

On this occasion her timing was impeccable. I was exactly one minute and 55 seconds away from being summoned to hear a cancer specialist tell me "the news".

Emir, with typical concern for my emotional state clearly audible, attempted to gently reassure me as I became increasingly irate about the impending declaration of doom.

Paul with his children James, Sonny and Isabelle
Paul with his children James, Sonny and Isabelle

"It's not me I'm worried about," I protested at a considerable decibel level. "I'm taking three young children into that room with me. It's the babies that I'm scared for." She understood. She always does.

I won't go into specifics, but my apprehensions were confirmed. The diagnosis is a blood cancer and, well, it's going to throw me one almighty challenge.

The first being, who to tell?

My eldest son James had been a close confidant as things started to look a bit dodgy three weeks before, when an official diagnosis of cancer was still a possibility, but unlikely.

His compassion and clear worry were both tangible. I asked him not to tell anyone but our bond is such that simply hiding this all from him, especially as he nears 14, was inconceivable.

Along with his vital lines of communication with me, he was offered regular reassurance from my eldest daughter Mariah and my wonderful mum. It's so important to talk about these things openly when children reach their teens.

Paul Martin is putting the showbiz party life to one side while he battles against cancer
Paul Martin is putting the showbiz party life to one side while he battles against cancer

I came home from the appointment that Thursday afternoon feeling mystified and broken. But with the children due to charge through the front door in 15 minutes I had to park my anxiety and quickly devise a strategy about how to break the news to them.

My first instinct was to say nothing. But with the potential treatment on the close horizon, this would only be delaying the inevitable emotional carnage.

As we sat on the sofa it just came out: "My babies. I got some news from the hospital today and I've got cancer, but I'm going to be okay and every one of you is my complete inspiration to get through this."

James seemed strangely passive, while Sonny's first words were: "Daddy, are you going to die?" I replied, "Of course not", feigning an upbeat laugh and cuddling him as tight as I ever have.

"Okay, so can we go and play football now in the garden?"

Isabelle broke down inconsolably. Burying her face on my shoulder, the tears streamed and the questions rolled. "Will you lose your hair? How long will you live? Can I stay with you longer, I want to make you well?"

I desperately tried to reassure the sweetest and most vulnerable of souls. In the end we managed a good run-around in the garden and plenty of cuddles seemed to settle her understandable dismay.

On the way out that evening she pleaded for a sleepover the following night. It was clear some one-on-one time was her way of coping with a shocking admission from her daddy.

Later that evening plans were in motion for her visit, but unfortunately she couldn't make it in the end.

I felt devastated for her, but this will be one of many challenges over the coming months as I try and find the will to hope for goodness in a quite rancid situation.

I then confided in a couple of friends. Messages were positive and almost apologetic. That's the strange thing about cancer - none of us really knows what to say.

Some lovely messages of support came in. Strangely, but not unforgivably, some people argued with me over what seemed like completely irrational and trivial issues in life that I've been dealing with. In a way, that diversion offered me a reassuring normality. And, blokes being blokes, we made up pretty quick after.

With all this in the first three hours of agreeing to be open about the cancer diagnosis, I was almost regretting my decision not to go into hiding.

Messages besieged my mum's phone, asking if I was okay and what the diagnosis was. How I was feeling.

Strangely, some of them felt disingenuous. More probing and fishing than actual concern. One friend was so concerned that her mum even texted me the most compassionate of motivational messages.

My cousin Chris has always been more of a brother to me. He dashed over for dinner. He listened. We both cried a lot and vocalised our dismay at some of the obstacles that have been thrown my way in the past nine months. But I made him a mean stuffed pork roast, so at least he got something out of the over-emotional 'dinner date from hell'.

But through the good, bad and ugly of that very testing 24 hours, I learnt a lot about the human race and even more about myself.

Some of us are compassionate. Some just filled with bitterness and self-absorbed agendas. Some just want to help, others want to cry with you. Some just don't know what to say - and that's cool too. I would probably have been one of them, had the shoe been on the other foot.

And me? Well I've got to find the guts to get through this for my children. Yes, I'm scared, but I'll get battle ready and give it my best shot.

"You used to be all about making money and becoming the biggest thing in the media," Stephen Nolan told me yesterday on his Radio Ulster show - with his entire audience listening in for good measure.

"If I asked you now what's your ambition, given the news that you have received, what would your answer be?"

I answered without hesitation. "Just to be able to see my kids playing joyfully in a park somewhere in a year's time. That's all. And that's good enough for me."

How times change.

You know, there has never been history in my extended family of cancer. We've all been lucky that way.

But without a doubt, the past nine months of personal issues have taken a ruthless and bewildering toll on me.

This fact has not escaped the dozens of friends and family who have reached out to me in the past few days.

Stress causes cancer.

I always heard that, but never really gave it much thought - at my age I never would have expected to.

So look after yourselves, or at least look after someone else.

I'll leave the last word to Emir, who has proven a lifeline of hope and genuine friendship that has offered immeasurable consolation (despite the fact that she has six thoroughly delightful children of her own to manage).

The day after my diagnosis I made good on a promise to take her for a birthday lunch.

Despite the agonising news, I didn't want to let her down.

She looked across the table in the restaurant, took a sip of her pink Champagne and announced: "Paul, you certainly have not lived a small life."

And that, against all odds, made me smile.

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