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Singer McGurk: 'My wife's breast cancer diagnosis was awful ... I'd no idea if I'd be left on my own with our baby'

By Stephanie Bell

Co Tyrone singer Justin McGurk penned a poignant song about his wife Roisin's cancer ordeal. Now, he wants the public to help win cash for the centre that helped them.

Prepare to shed a tear when you hear the haunting lyrics of the powerfully poignant song penned by Co Tyrone singer Justin McGurk after his wife Roisin was diagnosed with cancer.

The star wrote If I Could Take Your Place as a way of expressing the terrible anxiety he felt after Roisin, who was just 34 at the time, had undergone surgery to remove a Grade 3 tumour from her breast.

An emotional video performance with footage of the happy young couple on their wedding day just two years earlier, and featuring their son Larry who was just six months when his mum was diagnosed, has become a huge hit on YouTube.

It is a song which has struck a chord with many people in Northern Ireland who know the agony of dealing with a loved one's cancer diagnosis.

For Justin (40) writing the song while Roisin went through chemotherapy was a way of helping him deal with his own feelings and fears.

Today, he shares something of the terrible journey the family faced as he adds his voice to a call for people to lift their phones next week and vote for a local cancer treatment centre to win a £50,000 award in the People's Millions Big Lottery Fund TV contest.

Justin insists that without the help of Charis Cancer Centre, in his native county, he and Roisin would have struggled even more to cope during what was a traumatic time for them.

"It's hard to put into words what Charis did for us but to me it is a no-brainer," he says. "One in three people are affected by cancer and everyone reading this will know someone who has had it and it's so important that they pick up the phone and vote next week."

Charis Cancer Care, based in the Sperrins overlooking Lough Fea, is a self-funded charity which offers a haven of support for cancer patients and their families.

It provides a range of therapies such as massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, counselling, advice on benefit entitlements and nutritional advice.

Therapists and tutors work with the person as a whole, ensuring they benefit from advice and treatments which are free of charge.

There are four £50,000 awards up for grabs in the region during the ITV Big Lottery competition - one for each night from next Monday to Wednesday, November 24 to November 26, as well as a bonus award for the runner-up with the most votes across the week.

Justin and Roisin are among thousands who have benefitted and are urging the public to get behind the centre and vote for the funding which will allow Charis to help even more patients.

Justin is well-known across Ireland and the UK as a live performer on the entertainment circuit. He has released nine solo albums and his songs feature regularly on radio.

He has performed many times on national radio and TV and has toured with musical greats such as Nanci Griffith, Collin Raye, The Proclaimers and Bonnie Tyler.

Four years ago he formed The Boogie Men five-piece live band who are now one of the busiest groups in Ireland. He is currently working on a new album and has just released his new Christmas sing-a-long song, Christmas Party, which is available to download on iTunes.

He and Roisin had been married just two years and were enjoying the arrival of Larry, their first child, when Roisin was diagnosed in June 2011.

Roisin had been having trouble breastfeeding and was being treated for an abscess. Although it was thought the abscess was healing well, both Roisin and Justin suspected something more sinister could be behind it and they persuaded doctors to do a biopsy.

Two weeks later they were given the shattering news that Roisin did indeed have a Grade 3 aggressive cancerous tumour in her breast. It was a devastating blow.

"You just think 'This can't be right'," says Justin. "She was only 34 and we were only married two years and Larry was just six months old and it's just not what you expect to hear. It's a massive shock and I think I became numb and held everything inside because I thought what good would it do Roisin if I broke down.

"She had surgery two weeks later and then we had to wait to get an appointment to discuss treatment.

"I think it only really hits you when you are talking about chemotherapy. You know that this is poison going into the body which will kill living cells and you hear about the side-effects. You start to question if it is the best route but you don't really have a choice. You have to hand it all over to the professionals even though the treatment and the side-effects are a worry in itself.

"For Roisin, the treatment was horrendous and she described it as worse than childbirth."

Roisin underwent 18 weeks of intensive chemotherapy and suffered a range of horrific complications including violent vomiting, throat infections, headaches, mouth ulcers and constipation as well as the traumatic loss of her hair.

For Justin, who felt helpless as he supported his wife through every moment of her treatment, he found a way to cope by releasing his feelings in his song If I Could Take Your Place, and through counselling provided by Charis.

Roisin also received regular reflexology treatments at Charis which greatly helped to relieve her anxiety as she endured chemotherapy. Although the couple live outside Cookstown, not far from the centre, they had never heard of the centre until a friend told Justin about it.

"Where it is sitting in the mountains overlooking Lough Fea is perfect as it is very, very calm and peaceful up there," says Justin. "Charis is the most calming, wonderful place.

"We went just before the first chemo, which was a period when we felt as if we were in limbo. You've had the cancer taken out but you don't know what lies ahead and the waiting is terrible.

"Roisin was very anxious and Charis gave her reflexology and a lot of the anxiety went away very, very quickly after we started going there. For me, the counselling provided by the centre was a lifeline.

"There is a real awkwardness about cancer as people don't know how to talk about it and you don't really want to do so longer than you have to as it brings your anxiety to the fore.

"At that stage I was very worried, I didn't know what the future held and if Roisin was going to make it or if I would be left on my own without her, and with a six-month-old baby.

Reliving those traumatic months, Justin continues: "You can't help but think about those negative things. I also had to go out every night and sing for a living as the show must go on.

"On stage it was like a switch and I was able to blank it out while I performed but the minute I stepped off the stage the reality hit again.

"Like a lot of men you don't really talk about your feelings and if you don't talk and get your anxieties out it's only going to get worse. The people at Charis really understand what you are going through. I got a lot of things off my chest up there and strangely it was the one place you could go where cancer didn't dominate your thoughts. It really was a weight off your shoulders."

It was also during this period of deep worry about his wife's future that Justin wrote his song with the help of songwriter Shay Healy, who famously penned What's Another Year, Ireland's winning entry in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest.

Justin explains: "Shay and I had always talked about writing a song together. I had the bones of the lyrics in my head but no tune and I asked Shay to help.

"We did it very quickly through one or two emails to each other. We were never together in the same room. Then the tune came to me and I recorded the YouTube version and released it in July 2012 and it also became the title of a new album.

"The song became a bit of an anthem. People would come up to me and tell me that they heard it on the car radio and had to pull over to the side of the road because it just summed up exactly how they felt when a loved one they knew had cancer.

"The song, too, was a way of expressing myself and it summed up how I was feeling. I really would have loved to have taken Roisin's place if I had been able to."

Thankfully for Roisin, Justin and Larry, who is now three years old, life has got back to normal. Roisin receives annual mammograms but her health is good.

The couple have embraced the chance to help Charis, who they say they will be forever grateful to for the help they provided when their family needed it most.

"I can't speak of the place or the people in it highly enough or describe the impact it had on our family," says Justin. "We feel like part of the Charis family now.

"There are probably more women who use it than men but everything there is done confidentially and men are no different from women, we all worry the same and Charis would be my first point of call if I needed them."

Urging people to pick up the phone next week and vote for the centre to win, he adds: "If they win with this money they will be able to treat so many more people.

"I would say if I hadn't had Charis to help me to express myself and get those feelings I had internalised out, then something was going to give."

You can watch Justin's video at http://youtube/pLvquefNP-Y

A good call ... how you can vote for Charis centre

Charis Cancer Centre's New Ways of Thinking initiative has been selected as one of the projects to receive funding in the People's Millions TV contest

As part of the contest, two projects are identified to go head-to-head every night for three nights from next Monday, November 24, 6-6.30pm. Charis will feature in the first broadcast on Monday, alongside the Build a Beach Project, which is linked to the Titanic Foundation

A short video will be shown about each and the public will then be asked to vote for the project that they would like to receive the award via a phone vote. Results will be announced the following day.

Director of Charis Cancer Centre Imelda McGucken said it is "a fantastic achievement" for the centre to have been shortlisted.

"I would ask everyone to actively get involved and grasp the opportunity that exists to help secure vital funding that will make a tangible difference to individuals that are coping with the impact of cancer on their lives. Voting lines are open from 9am on the morning of the broadcast until midnight and we need everyone to pick up the phone and vote."

Since first opening its doors to the public in March 2010, Charis - which receives no funding from any of the statutory bodies - has helped over 2,300 people with their cancer journey. It costs around £500 to pay for each person's treatment, so the £50,000 prize would enable it to help another 100 people.

Patron of the Centre, television cookery expert Jenny Bristow, said: "Charis can broaden the services offered to patients coping with diagnosis, detection and treatment. The programme has been designed to complement rather than replace orthodox cancer treatments with the aim of providing physical, psychological and emotional support through the relief of symptoms.

"The funding will make a huge difference to service delivery over the next twelve months and will help broaden the services already offered.

"Lend your support to this really worthy cause by using the Twitter hashtag #votecharis. When the phone number becomes available we will add this on to the hashtag. Everyone can play a role in helping to secure funding and we really value your support."

Mobile and BT landline votes will cost 15p. Other landlines may vary. You can vote up to ten times on the day.

For details on the voting process, visit

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