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Putting hidden heroes of fight against cancer in front of lens


Elvis fanatic: Peter Branker has used the exhibition to show where his leg was amputated for the first time
Elvis fanatic: Peter Branker has used the exhibition to show where his leg was amputated for the first time
Family support: Joanne Nordmann and daughter Thea
Long journey: Gwyneth Doherty was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Poignant memory: Paul Hutchinson’s portrait
Paul with his partner Paul Mallon (left)

By Linda Stewart

Cancer charity Here I AM has launched its latest exhibition, Hand in Hand, telling the story of cancer patients from their own perspective and their carers’. Linda Stewart talks to some of the people pictured in this and in their first successful show.

'I was diagnosed when I was 13, but you just get on with things - I've always been an Elvis fan and I thought it would be interesting to dress up for the photo'

Peter Branker (48), from Dromore in Co Down, was first diagnosed with cancer at the age of 13. He works for Translink. Peter says:

I used to have a wee lump on my eyelid. That was it - there was no pain. But I went to the doctor in 1984 to have it removed and that's when they found the cancer, when they were examining the biopsy. It's called rhabdomyosarcoma and it was in behind my eye.

I had to have chemotherapy for three years, every three weeks, and I had radiotherapy. They had to go through my eye with the radiotherapy and as a result I lost my eye.

I didn't really know what the crack was. It wasn't really that frightening to be honest as I just thought I was always going to get better.

Then, in 1989, I'd been having pains for three years so that was a different cancer but they only discovered it when I went in for an operation.

I'd been in excruciating pain for three years and I was going round the doctors having X-rays from about a year after the first diagnosis, but they just thought it was cysts and it would go away when my bones had stopped growing.

They were going to graft bone from the pelvis into the lower ankle, but when they opened the leg they found it was cancer.

I had to go to London for an MRI as there were no machines here at the time. Then I came back home to Musgrave Hospital and the leg was amputated three days later. It meant I didn't have to have any more treatment then. I didn't get my prosthetic until the following April.

About five years ago I started getting basal cells at the side of my face as a result of the radiotherapy and I had to get a few of them removed.

You just have to go on. That is really it - there's no point worrying about it.

When they were talking about doing the exhibition, I had never really showed the leg before and I thought it was an opportunity to do that.

I've been an Elvis fan since I was 13 when I had a Sony Walkman and some cassettes bought for me. I just always liked him so I thought it would interesting to dress up like that.

I used to run a karaoke and I've sung a few songs, but nothing more than that. I'm in South Africa on holiday at the moment.

I abseiled down Table Mountain yesterday, I've been shark diving, I'm going on a balloon safari tomorrow and then I'm going on a one-day safari - and lots of other things."

‘Getting our photo taken was exciting for my daughter and me — it was nice to involve her’

Learning support teacher Joanne Nordmann (52), from Carrickfergus, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2017. She is married to John (49) and has three children, Ethan (21), Hal (18) and Thea (15). She says:

I was just a little bit achy and a little bit sore on the left breast and when I went to investigate I could feel something in it.

I hadn't told anybody anything. I made an appointment with my GP and then came back and told my husband and eldest son I was going for tests. That was quite difficult, the day I had all the tests. My mum has one brother who had esophageal cancer and he was in having an operation when I was in the City Hospital having my tests.

My poor dad had bowel cancer two months after I'd breast cancer. He developed pancreatic cancer and died last March.

The actual surgery was in April 2017. I had a choice of going for a lumpectomy or going for the mastectomy. I went for the mastectomy, simply because I wanted to have one operation, although in the end I had three.

The operation was an LD flap, which means they use muscle from your back for reconstruction on the front. It is a much more involved operation than a lumpectomy.

When I was diagnosed, my friend sent me information about the Here I AM group - she said 'it probably isn't the right time but just in case you need them in the future, here are the details'.

One day on Facebook I sawthat they were doing an exhibition from a carer's perspective and that's why my daughter got involved. She was only 12 when this happened and she stuck to me like a sticking plaster through all the operations, so I wanted to do something that would involve her.

It was an excuse for us to get our hair and make-up done and get our photograph taken, a wee bit of excitement for us and something we wouldn't normally do. It's quite funny because it was taken two years ago and my hair is completely different now and she looks so much older.

There are a couple of the photographs that I particularly like - there's one of us lying in the grass holding hands and friends have said that's such a lovely photo because you can see how close you are. There is a little bit of a write-up from each person in each photo, and that made me cry, when I read Thea's bit."

‘You just have to be a warrior ... and you need your family around you too’

Gillian McLoughlin (46), who works in Subway in Portadown, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. She is married to travelling evangelist Gordon (48) and has two sons, Badger (25) and Jonny (15) who is autistic. Gillian says:

I started getting tattoos when I was 15 and I got 20 or so. I stopped when I was 17 and then maybe 15 years ago I started again and it just hasn't stopped. When I don't have one planned, I get a bit antsy. I just really, really like them and they give me confidence that I don't have.

I have Alice in Wonderland, but a zombie version, and the Mad Hatter at the back. I have an autism one for Jonny and a badger on my left thigh. I have Wednesday Addams on my back and it says 'I hate everything' which is just me!

We were on a family holiday and it was on the second day, when I was putting sunscreen on, that I noticed a lump. Fast forward two weeks and I got home and went to the doctors. They told me it was a cyst but they had to refer me to the breast clinic anyway.

I had a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy all on the same day. My older boy came with me and he had to wait for three hours. Two days later I got a call to go back in to get the results and they said 'Are you on your own?'.

I left there and went to my Slimming World group and got weighed and then I went home and told my husband.

You just deal with it. I've sort of been like that from the start, that it's not a big deal. I know it affects other people differently but I think I am emotionally closed. My husband went to pieces. It was an invasive ductal carcinoma and the plan was for a mastectomy on August 13, 2015.

The drain failed and I got a seroma afterwards which is a build-up of fluid.

In May last year, two months after the photographs, I had the other one removed for symmetry. I couldn't wear a bra, it was riding up on the side and there was no balance. I don't wear prosthetics so it was uncomfortable. They don't make one-cup bras for people that are uniboobers.

The photographers were amazing - they were so good. I was shocked at how big I'd got but I am losing weight now.

You just have to be strong, a warrior as they say. Breasts don't define a woman. They are just another piece of skin for me to tattoo and they've done their job.

My message would be that people need their family around them to help and their friends as well."

‘My mum was incredible during my treatment but shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with cancer too’

Circus performer and teacher Gwyneth Doherty (32), from Greencastle, Co Donegal, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2015. Her parents are Sarah and Charlie and she has two sisters, Jayne and Ellen, and a brother, William. Gwyneth says:

I wanted to work in Hollywood when I was a kid, being in or making movies. I started studying drama and theatre at college and a few years after that I joined the circus.

I then joined In Your Space circus in Derry and within a year I was performing and teaching with them. I now own a company called Locomotion North West and I teach and perform - it's wonderful.

In February 2015 my eye started watering and over the next few months it was continually watering and starting to swell. I had a couple of trips to A&E trying to find out what it was.

I had surgery on my sinuses, but it was unsuccessful and I got a diagnosis on Good Friday in 2015. The cancer was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the lymph nodes behind my left eye. It had became a tumour. My face was swollen by then and it kept building and swelling.

I started treatment at the end of February - I had four rounds of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiotherapy between April and June. By the end of August it was in remission and I went for stem cell transplant.

The team were fairly certain the cancer would return within 18 months so they replaced my immune system. My brother donated stem cells and I grew back his immune system. It's a very difficult procedure to have done - I was sick every day for about six months, but in the grand scheme of things it was fine.

My mum was incredible during my treatment. We moved to Dublin for a year and she was incredible, so when we were given the opportunity to take part in the photographs I took her along. She was diagnosed a year and a half ago with stomach cancer and we're working through her treatment and recovery now, but we had no idea at the time.

During the photographs I was wearing a Hickman Line that delivered medicine through a multi-port system into my heart to be distributed around my body.

Cancer unfortunately hits everyone, every home - every single person I know has been affected in some way.

It's great people are talking about it more and more people are surviving cancer than ever before. It's great too to see the support for cancer organisations and patients. Keep doing that and hopefully we'll find a cure for all kinds of cancer very soon."

‘This photo was taken at a time when we knew Paul didn’t have much time left ... I hope the exhibition raises awareness of the vital role of carers’

Paul Mallon (38), from north Belfast who works in social housing, became a trustee of Here I AM following the loss of his partner Paul Hutchinson (45), also from north Belfast, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. He says:

Paul first noticed the symptoms back in 2013. At that particular time he had thought it was vertigo and we didn't know that what Paul had was brain cancer.

He was getting intense headaches and dizzy spells.

The GP and the hospital had told him it was vertigo and gave him medication for that, but over time his symptoms began to get worse.

I began to notice things, like he was leaving doors unlocked and dropping things.

We went on holiday to Benidorm with each other and that was when things became worse.

He was losing control of bodily functions, his speech was slurred and he became paralysed on one side of his body. Things for some reason got progressively worse during that holiday and we had to fly home early and go straight to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

They did scans and found there was a cyst but also a tumour behind the cyst. The surgery showed it was an aggressive stage four cancer called gliosarcoma.

The prognosis was 6-8 months and thankfully Paul managed to get four and a half years from that point.

In 2017 his condition got progressively worse to the point that it was becoming obvious that the chemotherapy wasn't working and the tumour had grown back.

There was always part of the tumour still in his brain because there was too much risk to go in and operate, and it had grown from that.

Paul was told it could be a couple of months.

He was one of the original members of Here I AM and was featured in the first exhibition.

This picture was taken at a time when we knew there wasn't going to be much time left and it has taken on a bit more of a resonance since then.

Over the years that Paul was still here, I felt prepared, I was told from the very beginning what to expect.

He was given 6-8 months and it turned out to be longer than what was expected so I'd plenty of time to read up on it. I remember the day the photographs were taken and we were having a long conversation that day about the future. I can see it in our faces.

The whole purpose of the exhibition is to generate awareness of carers and their role in the journey of cancer.

Carers are quite underserved and the intention of this exhibition is to start a conversation to provide signposting to additional support."

Emotive exhibition highlights contribution of carers

This year's exhibition Hand in Hand is the second in a series of planned exhibitions from Here I AM and tells the story of cancer patients through images and words from the perspective of their carers - family, friends or themselves. The purpose is to improve awareness of people with cancer and give recognition to the unspoken heroes who provide daily care, love and devotion to those battling cancer. The charity's aim over the next few months is to explore the resources available to carers of cancer patients in NI and to find ways to  make those resources more accessible.

The exhibition runs at ArtCetera Studio, 43 Rosemary Street, Belfast, throughout October. It is free, but Here I AM welcomes donations. The final total raised after the last exhibition in 2016 - which displayed images exploring the truth about cancer, and some images are included here - was £12,000 which was divided equally between Cancer Focus NI, Macmillan NI, NI Cancer Fund for Children, Pretty 'n' Pink Breast Cancer Charity, Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI and Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust.

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