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'What's it like coping with chemo during lockdown? Tough... but you see so many acts of kindness'

Alan Laughlin was undergoing treatment for bowel cancer when the coronavirus crisis sparked lockdown - and now he's in self-isolation away from his family. Linda Stewart talks to the Co Down man about dealing with cancer treatment in the midst of a pandemic


Challenging times: Alan Laughlin has had to self-isolate during his chemotherapy treatment

Challenging times: Alan Laughlin has had to self-isolate during his chemotherapy treatment

Enjoying a run

Enjoying a run

Lockdown separation: Alan Laughlin with children Arianna and Abel, who he is currently living apart from

Lockdown separation: Alan Laughlin with children Arianna and Abel, who he is currently living apart from

Challenging times: Alan Laughlin has had to self-isolate during his chemotherapy treatment

Every evening, Alan Laughlin and his family have a Zoom call in which he reads his nine-year-old daughter and son (4) bedtime stories by authors like Julia Donaldson and David Walliams. He's missing his children deeply, but is having to live away from his family because he's still in the midst of a chemotherapy course following bowel surgery and it would simply be too much of a threat to his health if he were to contract coronavirus.

Alan's wife Amanda (41) is a doctor and was worried she could catch the virus in the course of her work and pass it onto her husband.

As lockdown loomed they went round all their friends asking if there was anyone who would be self-isolating and, thanks to the intervention of his friend Phil Donaldson, who owns the Limelight venue, heoffered Alan the use of a house he owned in south Belfast.

"He had the house cleaned completely out with Dettol and ready for me," Alan says. "When I arrived, the neighbour had left a bag with food and a bottle of wine and four toilet rolls - which at that time were probably more valuable than anything else," says Alan.

While Alan has been self-isolating in Belfast, his family also caught coronavirus and were themselves in isolation for three weeks.


Lockdown separation: Alan Laughlin with children Arianna and Abel, who he is currently living apart from

Lockdown separation: Alan Laughlin with children Arianna and Abel, who he is currently living apart from

Lockdown separation: Alan Laughlin with children Arianna and Abel, who he is currently living apart from

"They're over it now. They all had very mild symptoms and it was nothing to worry about, thankfully, but that's not always going to be the case," Alan says.

Originally from Finaghy, Alan is a senior practitioner at a Barnardo's children's home and is keen on cold water swimming and running. He was two days away from his first marathon when he was taken in for surgery on a suspected tumour in his bowel.

"When I went for surgery, I thought all that training had gone to waste, but the surgeon said 'You've been training for this - this will get you better'. It meant at least I was fit for when I had to go into surgery," he explains.

The first symptoms he had noticed were intermittent stomach cramps. "I noticed I was taking a lot of painkillers so I went to the doctor's. Basically I had symptoms of IBS and they put me on the list for a colonoscopy," he says.

One particular concern for Alan was that when he was 21, his dad Andrew died of bowel cancer when he was in his late 50s. "It was diagnosed and then he had two years. Unfortunately it got into his liver at that stage," he says. "Obviously that made me quite worried, so I kept mentioning this when I went to the GP."

The problem for Alan was that none of the indicators for cancers were coming up.

"My bloods were tested and nothing ever showed up. Even the day before having surgery for a stage 4 tumour, I wasn't showing signs of cancer in my blood - it's important that people understand bloods aren't the only marker for cancer," he says.

"I was given blood tests, a faecal test as well and there were no indicators. I wasn't losing weight very much, I didn't have consistent diarrhoea, I didn't have bleeding. I didn't have very many symptoms that I had bowel cancer. For about three months I had on and off symptoms of cramps which would go away and come back."

It was only when Alan developed a bowel blockage that the cause was discovered. "My stomach became worse, I was nauseous, I was vomiting and I basically had to go into A&E. I took myself up to the hospital and the rest is history."

A CT scan revealed a blockage in his bowel and he was told he needed to undergo surgery right away.


Enjoying a run

Enjoying a run

Enjoying a run

"It was all a bit of a shock at that stage - it all felt very fast," Alan says. "The next day I went in and had a laparotomy (bowel section). They said I'd more than likely be coming out with a temporary or permanent colostomy bag. For me, that had lots of connotations for an active lifestyle and swimming. But I was like 'that's okay, I will deal with it'."

Two days after he had come round from a successful operation, he discovered he wouldn't need a colostomy bag. "I had so many things attached to me that I hadn't noticed," Alan says. "I've got a fully working bowel. They had to take around a third of the bowel but they managed to reattach it. Everything is working fine now with two-thirds of the bowel.

"I've a big scar now down my tummy - it's a bit of a corker. It freaked the kids out at first because it looked like a zipper with the staples in."

Alan says the children have dealt with it really well, possibly because they had grown accustomed to him being sick in the months running up to surgery.

"They have been absolutely amazing," he says. "It just shows you the resilience of kids. Sometimes they have questions and I find just being honest with them but not going into the full details is the best approach.

"The only concept that was hard for them was that the medication made me feel worse. Normally medicine makes you feel better, whereas with chemo you're taking horrific substances and pumping them into your body."

Alan spent six weeks at home rehabilitating himself to the point where he could undergo chemotherapy. In December he embarked on a six-month chemo programme, with an infusion every three weeks as an outpatient at the McDermott Ward in the Ulster Hospital.

The medication is administered through a PICC line, a tube that stays inserted in the arm for the duration of the six months.

"You're in a ward with other people who are hooked up to various things. There is a real resilience and positivity amongst the people there - it's people who have been really put through the mill, pushed to the limit and realise it's the only way forward," he says.

Alan says he is particularly sensitive to the chemo drugs and they affect him straight away. "After the first one I became quite anxious going into it, knowing what would happen afterward. Each time I got chemo, the side effects were worse. It's hard to breathe in the cold air outside - it hurts your hands and feet quite a lot.

"You can't touch anything cold, can't eat anything cold. I remember having a bowl of cereal - I had one scoop - and my jaw nearly locked with the searing pain just from the milk being in the fridge. You're walking with gloves on and a balaclava. From there I would also be on two weeks of chemo medication which I take at home and that leaves me feeling nauseous and having diarrhoea, things like that. The combination was quite tough."

But he says the services provided by Action Cancer were a godsend, including the therapist in the McDermott Ward who provides massage, aromatherapy and mindfulness practice to the patients as they wait for their chemo.

She made an aromatherapy stick for Alan that helped him to reactivate that state of relaxation whenever he was feeling under stress and anxious about the side-effects ahead."It really helped me get through it," he says.

For Alan, there was a big mental health aspect to being ill."I was unable to do all the things that I used to do to help me cope in life - I couldn't run, couldn't swim, couldn't play with the kids that much. I couldn't go outside because it was too cold. It was very difficult at times."

The chemotherapy regime has changed since the lockdown started.

"I got DVT in the PICC line arm and it was swollen, so I had to have the line removed. The chemo was taking a massive toll on my immune system," he says. "They felt it was too dangerous and I had to stop with the infusion."

Now, he drives to the Ulster Hospital to collect his chemo medication, which is left out to him in the car. Apart from that, self-isolation is about Netflix, attempting to make sourdough bread and a little bit of running.

"For me, running has always been a release and I wasn't always able to because of the chemo. I try to go at times when there are no other people about," Alan says.

"I do a bit of mindfulness meditation most days, just following my breath - it helps me with anxiety. It helps me remain calm and see outside of the immediate situation."

Alan pays tribute to his employer Barnardo's, for how they've helped him during chemo, Macmillan Cancer, Action Cancer, Cafe Carberry (who deliver meals to people in self-isolation) and to Phil Donaldson for offering a house to a relative stranger.

He adds: "So many acts of kindness have been done, that to me it's been overwhelmingly positive," he says.

"For me this current situation, while it's been the most difficult thing I've ever done, being away from my kids and wife, it's been an amazing experience.

"You see acts of kindness all around you. People are doing heroic things - everyday things, but heroic all the same."

Action Cancer in urgent need of government funding

Action Cancer is Northern Ireland's leading local cancer charity. Each year over 30,000 adults, young people and children use its free services, including 10,000 breast screenings, 3,000 health checks, 7,500 psychological and physiological support sessions to over 1,500 persons impacted by cancer, and health promotion and awareness programmes to 15,000 people.

Action Cancer is the only charity in the UK or Ireland to provide breast screening. Using the very latest 3D imaging, it detects six or seven early stage breast cancers for every 1,000 women screened.

The charity's services are delivered throughout Northern Ireland - at the charity's clinic and therapeutic centre in Belfast, onboard its mobile breast cancer clinic 'Big Bus', in community centres, hospitals, health centres, workplaces, sporting and social clubs.

Action Cancer receives no funding from the Government and raises £4m every year from the public in the province.

This it did very successfully until the first week of March when the impact of the Covid-19 virus struck. By March 24, the charity was required to end all services, close all 20 shops and cease fundraising activities.

CEO Gareth Kirk says: "With no end in sight and restrictions on fundraising activities likely to endure for many months, there's a real high-level risk that we will fall victim to Covid-19 .

"It is simply unthinkable to imagine hearing about women dying, because of no screenings being available to identify early detection of breast cancers.

"We don't want to see vulnerable men, women and children's mental health worsen because our counselling and therapeutic services disappear.

"To avoid this from happening we need the urgent financial support from the Department for the Communities.

"We have never received funds from the local government; it's now or never.

"Our request is this please, on behalf of our community, help us save lives and support people. Take action to save Action Cancer."

Belfast Telegraph