When his father-in-law died of cancer in 2007 aged just 57, local businessman Mark Hanna reacted in a way that changed his life. The happy-go-lucky father-of-two who had never put on a pair of running shoes in his life has since scaled mountains, ran marathons and completed various other major challenges, helping raise an astonishing £200,000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Mark had been so overwhelmed by the dignity and level of care given to his late father-in-law, Samuel Nelson, by nurses in his final weeks in the Marie Curie Hospice that he felt compelled to show his appreciation by giving the charity some support.
Seven years on and the Carryduff construction company director's life has been taken over by planning and taking part in mega fundraising events to help keep the vital Marie Curie service running. It's why he is also lending his support to a special themed event tomorrow to mark St Valentine's Day. On the most romantic day of the year, Marie Curie has once again teamed up with crisps giant Tayto to urge people to 'Share the Love' in a special promotion which will run through all Tesco stores in Northern Ireland.
The idea is to promote a feel-good factor so that everyone – not just happy couples – can enjoy St Valentine's Day.
Share the Love wants people to realise it can be little things in life that make us happy, such as showing your appreciation to a good neighbour, a friend who has been there in tough times or a childminder.
For Mark (41), who is married to Denise (39) and has two children, Jordan (15) and Kirsty (13), one of the biggest revelations of his fundraising efforts in the past few years has been the discovery of just how little it takes to make a big difference to the lives of others.
He says: "Some of the simplest things in this world, common courtesy – like saying 'hello', 'thank you' or 'good morning' – can have such a phenomenal effect on someone's day.
"It really amazes me how when half a dozen of us get together to plan something for Marie Curie, just how much can be achieved.
"You always think of people who do these mountain treks and marathons as being special people.
"They are not, they are just ordinary and it shows that anyone can do it.
"Share the Love is a super idea and hopefully it will not just encourage people to donate to Marie Curie but stop and make people think just how much a difference it can make to show some common courtesy – one of the easiest things in the world to do."
Since Mark began his fundraising challenges – which have included climbing to Mount Everest base camp, climbing Kilimanjaro and this year a trek in Peru – he says his whole family has benefited by becoming much closer through their mutual desire to help Marie Curie.
It was the death of his father-in-law which so dramatically changed the focus of Mark's life.
He recalls: "Sam had been at our house for Christmas in December 2006 when he took ill.
"He went to hospital and was diagnosed very quickly with Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma T-cell. He got radiotherapy and chemotherapy that year and appeared to be doing well.
"He was a site-based construction worker and was always busy and active – a fit, healthy man who never smoked or drank which I think shows just how indiscriminate cancer is.
"It's a wakeup call for everyone, cancer has no values, it doesn't matter what age you are if you are healthy or wealthy or living in poverty, no person in the world is immune.
"Sam had surgery and at first it was thought that it had been a success but he relapsed.
"We had been led to believe that the cancer was in a specific area and could be dealt with but the nature and ferocity of it was such that it was just a death sentence.
"Watching that very fit 13 stone man disappear to a four or five stone corpse was just horrendous."
Sammy spent his last three weeks in Marie Curie Hospice where he died peacefully on November 7, 2007.
His family remained by his side and Mark witnessed for the first time the exceptional quality of palliative care for which the nurses of the charity are renowned.
It proved life-changing for him.
He says: "I had driven past the Hospice every day going to the office and I knew it was there but I had no idea what went on behind those walls.
"Unless you see them do what they do you can't really appreciate it. I was totally in awe of them and the dignity and care they afforded to Sammy in his last week.
"The nurses bring a sense of calmness to a dying moment. I found it unbelievable, our world was falling apart at the time and the nurses brought calm to it and I was totally mesmerised by them.
"When you see the nurses go out there at 10pm to peoples' homes or those who work in the hospice, you realise it is not a job, it's a vocation.
"Afterwards I just thought I wanted to do something to raise some money and make sure the service continued for other families like ourselves."
Jokingly, he describes his biggest fitness event prior to losing his father-in-law as "getting ready to go to the pub".
However, he decided to tackle a marathon and, starting from scratch, began to train.
He says: "As a 16 stone man I was the most unlikely candidate for a marathon.
"Exercise just wasn't part of my life. Very few people would have expected me to do a marathon. I couldn't do a whole one that year so I did the relay in the Belfast Marathon and afterwards swore I would never do another one again."
He did though.
He was so struck by the fact that he was able to achieve what he had never thought possible that he continued to train and completed the full marathon in 2009.
He says: "The minute I crossed that line I realised that there is nothing – if you put your mind and determination to it – that you can't achieve."
This year he plans to tackle several events including a half Iron Man event, a mud run, fun runs with his family and, to cap it off, a trek in Peru.
Three years ago, he got involved with the Marie Curie fundraising committee set up by local woman Kathy Loughridge in Malone and is now an active member along with Suzi Colgan and Clare Campbell.
In November 2011, the group held their first fundraising ball – now a popular biannual event known as The Time Ball – which raised £52,000 and to date has raised a total of £126,000.
Plans are underway for the next Ball on November 15, 2015 with full details at www.thetimeball.com
In 2012, a team was put together for the Marie Curie trek to Everest base camp and Mark and Kathy were joined by family and friends who together raised £55,000 for the charity.
Last year, he climbed Kilimanjaro with a team, together bringing in another £74,000.
They are phenomenal sums of money but crucial to Marie Curie who rely entirely on the public to keep its vital service going.
For Mark, who is a director of Mascott Construction in Belfast, there is no turning back.
The benefits – not just to the charity – but to him personally, and he believes his entire family, are immeasurable.
He says: "Being able to raise the money for Marie Curie is fabulous and the friendships I have made are just unbelievable.
"It's not just the major events but all of the small fundraisers like coffee mornings and donations throughout the year that together make such a big difference. Every £20 raised pays for one hour of nursing care.
"The people you meet along the way all have the same stories to tell and it's great just being able to get together with like-minded people who, with a bit of power and energy, can achieve so much.
"I'm just an ordinary person and if I was able to go out and do something then anyone can. You don't have to be a special person to take on a challenge; you just have to be prepared to give your time.
"When you physically see how the money is spent, it makes it so worthwhile.
"The sad truth is that patients at the hospice are getting younger and younger. No one knows when illness is going to knock on their door. I'm just delighted to be able to do something
"When people see the Marie Curie T-shirts and realise what we are doing – that we are not just running around with collection buckets – it helps create awareness that ordinary people can go out and do this.
"The kids and Denise make it possible for me as without their support I wouldn't be able to do any of it, and the trek to Everest alone meant being away for three weeks. I think it has brought us all closer together as we now have a common goal to raise money to help ensure other families get the dignity and care Sammy got. Denise comes along to many of our events to help out."
e Tayto has partnered with Marie Curie this year in its Share & Care campaign, donating 5p for each of its large sharing bags of crisps and snacks sold.
e The aim is to raise well over £100,000 to support the local work of the charity, either in a patient's own home, anywhere in Northern Ireland, or in the Belfast Marie Curie Hospice.
e So far the partnership has raised around £70,000 and it is hoped that the Valentine's Day Share the Love campaign will add a further £30,000 to that total – an amount which will directly fund 1500 hours of Marie Curie Nursing Care.
e Elly Hunter of Tayto says: "Valentine's Day doesn't have to be all about hearts and flowers – it's a lovely day simply to tell someone they are important to you.
Tayto would like to Share the Love for the amazing work done in Northern Ireland by Marie Curie."