'I'm about to die... the cancer bus is on its way for my final journey'
Hugh Cooney tells Daniel McConnell why men must do more to avoid getting cancer
Hugh Cooney is no stranger to these pages. An accounting whizz, he was at one stage Ireland's leading insolvency practitioner.
Dubbed the 'Prince of Insolvency', the Tullamore native and close friend of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen has been a high-profile business figure throughout the years.
A former chairman of Enterprise Ireland, as well as being a former director of several other high-profile companies including Siteserv, 63-year-old Hugh Cooney is the epitome of the mover and shaker.
But this interview is not to do with his stellar business career or even his successful inter-county football and hurling career with Offaly. "A hardy f**ker who let few past him," was his reputation in the backline.
No, we meet at his home in Foxrock, Dublin, for a very different reason.
Hugh is dying and is in his final days.
This interview was due to take place last week but had to be delayed because he was so unwell. When in hospital, he was given the news that he has just weeks to live.
"The way I feel at the moment, Danny, these are not words I have made up, these are words I have used with my kids. The cancer bus is on its way to collect me for my final journey and it is probably a question of weeks now rather than months. I am ready for it, I want people to become more aware of cancer," Hugh says.
We begin by Hugh telling me when he first realised something was seriously wrong. It was back in early 2013 that Hugh's life changed forever.
"I have a clear recollection; I became sick in a hotel room in Frankfurt, the night before a board meeting of Aryzta. I woke up about 2am in the morning, and, to be honest, I thought someone had shot me across the abdomen," he says.
"This searing pain, and for the rest of the night I simply sat up in a bed against the wall. So, that is when I knew something was not quite right," he adds.
"I wasn't upset. I was surprised as to the severity of the pain, but I did get relief by sitting up against the wall. I just put it down to something wrong in my stomach.
"I recall going down to the board meeting the next morning, which was an early board meeting, and getting a Nurofen Plus from one of the board members.
"When I was sitting up against a chair I was fine, but the CEO came to me at the end of the meeting and said to me, 'Hugh, I would be much happier when you get back to Dublin if you go to see someone'."
Did he have any advance warning that something was wrong?
"I do recall two occasions passing blood. It only happened briefly, but, to me, I didn't listen to my body," Hugh says.
"To me passing blood is the body telling you something is not right, something is abnormal," he adds.
But on returning to Dublin from Frankfurt, Hugh immediately attended a Doc On Call service beside St Vincent's Hospital.
"I remember going into the waiting room about 7.40 that night, and obviously my GP was finished for the day, but I went into the waiting room, and I was three in line. He put me on a patients' trolley, lying down, and once I lay down the pain was searing once again. He had me in Vincent's A&E immediately," Hugh recalls.
Despite his extreme discomfort, Hugh never even thought it could be cancer.
"The last thing on my mind, Danny, was that it was cancer.
"At one stage, and I was in A&E for quite a few hours, I was admitted about 8 o'clock, and it was after 12am when a doctor came out and said he wasn't happy," Hugh says.
Kept in overnight, Hugh was sent for an ultrasound to rule out blocked gallstones. It wasn't gallstones and the doctors suspected something far more sinister.
"The doctor said: 'Listen you have a tumour in your colon, and I think it is cancerous. . . [the ultrasound] has shown up some specks on your liver. So it could be stage four cancer, but we need to do further tests on you on Tuesday.' He said to go home and enjoy the holiday weekend," Hugh recalls.
"I listened to him and Gwen, my daughter, was in the room when he said it to me, and I listened to him for about 10 seconds. I remember saying to him that doesn't sound like great news.
"His reply was, and it was very important to me at the time, and helped me subsequently, he said: 'Hugh, you have a long road ahead of you.' I took the positives from that."
Tests a few days later confirmed Hugh did have stage four colon cancer which had spread to his liver.
He was immediately put on a very aggressive course of chemotherapy, attending the day-care unit at St Vincent's Private Hospital, under the care of oncologist Ray McDermott.
I ask Hugh if starting the course of chemotherapy was a major mental barrier to overcome and whether he was daunted by it.
"It was quite the opposite. I used to get quite upset when I didn't get the chemo. I said it from the start, if I am not getting chemo, cancer is having a free run, a free ride.
"So the only time the kids would have seen me a little bit quiet would have been when my bloods were down, that only happened on three occasions in two years. So a lot of chemo has gone in to fight the cancer. That was the view I took, I used to get upset when I wasn't getting the chemo," he says.
Given the cancer had spread, surgery was not an option, but Hugh rallied his family - his wife Nuala, and five children, Eva, Fiona, Gwen, Laura and Hugh Junior - around him and insisted that it would be "business as usual".
"My basic message was it is a long road ahead, but it is business as usual. I am a going concern, not a gone concern. I relate a lot of things back to business, Danny, and sport, so I told them I am a going concern, not a gone concern," he says.
But not alone did he have to make major adjustments to his life, the chemo had some difficult side effects.
"It wasn't easy, I lost my taste buds. The one thing I really got to like again, probably brought me back to my childhood, was the tins of fruit cocktail out of a can and the juice. I could have had six of those for tea, but you need something more solid.
"Fortunately, while I lost my taste buds, I still ate. I didn't eat as much and sometimes I just closed my eyes and ate - I won't say I force-fed myself, but I closed my eyes and ate," he says.
But facing into his illness, Hugh realised there was another milestone he now wanted to achieve.
"That night, I felt an important personal milestone for me would be wouldn't it be lovely to walk my three daughters, who had yet to marry, down the aisle before this road comes to an end, whatever it may be.
"I don't think I put any pressure on them, I don't feel I put any pressure on them . . . (Gwen smiling), but I am glad to say between December 2014 and June 2015 my three daughters all got married to great guys and we had fantastic days at all of the weddings. And just fantastic memories for me at all of the weddings. An important milestone for me," he says.
But the main reason Hugh and I are talking is his strong desire to raise awareness about early detection and prevention, because, as he says, when he was diagnosed it was too late.
"A good friend of mine, who is a surgeon, said to me if I had gone to him 10 years ago with stage four diagnosis, I would have been dead within three months. Being totally honest with you, once you are diagnosed with stage four in the majority of cases it is too late," he says.
Before his diagnosis he had never heard of colonoscopies, he admits, but now says they should be mandatory for all adults over 50.
"Cancer is a formidable foe and avoid it if you can. Why are colonoscopies not mandatory for adults over 50? A colonoscopy costs €1,600, why are they not mandatory? It is a simple question. If you sit down with the CEOs of the medical insurance companies and ask them why is it not mandatory.
"If I had a colonoscopy at 50, would I have terminal cancer today? The answer is perhaps, but I am damn sure it is a matter of odds. There are a number of people who if they had them they would be alive today," he says.
But Hugh and his family are fundraising to have a psychologist to help cancer patients in the day-care unit. Hugh has set a target of €100,000 by November.
He says from his more than 50 bouts of chemo, every two weeks, he saw the need for a psychologist to help patients deal with their treatment.
"One day, this old man came in and he sat down beside me on the chairs. I guess he was about 70, and he was frail, and I looked up and there was a big tear coming down this guy's face, and I said: 'Oh Jesus, what is this all about?'
"The bit that got me, and made me even more determined, was when the nurse asked him about what he had eaten before chemo. He said 'a glass of milk'. I said 'oh my Jesus', this poor man coming in for chemo on a glass of milk," he says.
"The old man was widowed and had one daughter in Australia, he had no one. All John needed was a psychologist who would spend 15 minutes with him, talking to him and then telling his neighbour who kept an eye on him about pre-treatment. So that had a big effect on me. Looking around the ward and how people react differently to cancer, some people don't react well at all," he adds.
So far the family have raised more than €50,000 and are on course, but Hugh and the family got bad news in July, after a bad scan.
He says: "I was still very positive until a scan in July this year. Something happened over the previous few months and it now looks like as a result of that scan the diagnosis has changed from chronic to terminal.
"I knew from the doctor, because I had a very good relationship with Ray, I just sensed there was disappointing news.
"And there was disappointing news and I remember asking Ray if it had gone from chronic to terminal - now it was always probably terminal - and he said 'yes'.
"I asked: 'How long do I have?' He replied: 'Probably months rather than years.'"
So again Hugh rallied the family round for a Cooney family board meeting, and they have committed to him to carry on his legacy after he dies.
"My message is: don't be stupid, because we are too complacent about our health. My message is avoid cancer if you can, and how do you avoid it," he says.
I ask him about faith and whether he rekindled his faith since being diagnosed.
Having grown up in a devout household in Tullamore, Hugh says his faith lapsed when he went to college.
But during his treatment he began going again to Mass every day in the local church in Foxrock.
"I have gone back in a big way to my faith. When I took the six months off work, I started going to ten o'clock Mass in Foxrock. I got great solace from that. There is a little community there," he says.
He adds that he was talking to a friend one day and three days later a relic of Padre Pio arrived out to the house.
"I went through about half an hour and you say specific prayers, and you hold the relic up to your heart, and I didn't want to let the relic go. I do say a prayer to Padre Pio every night and he is in my prayers. I do also say prayers against cancer - feck you, you know," he adds.
But we return to the bad news of last week, which said Hugh has little time left.
"Sitting here today, Danny, talking to you, I am told I am terminal, weeks to go. The future is that I want to leave a legacy so that people are more aware," he says.
Unable to travel, or drive even, his options to do things is limited.
He had tickets for today's All-Ireland final but he isn't able for it. He went to the hurling final and it left him with no energy.
But I ask him what would he love to do before he goes?
"Do you know what I would love, if it could happen? I would love to get my taste buds back and my system right, get an amnesty for 48 hours, so I can drink Guinness and go to a singing pub.
"I can't sing, but I love traditional Irish music. I would really love to get my taste buds back to have a pint or two, and do an all-night session," he says.
He and the family have also begun planning his funeral and he feels very fortunate to be able to do that.
"I could have been killed in a car accident and they would have been given no notice at all. I was given notice of a few years, so I have been able to plan for this and also I have been able to decide on the songs for the funeral and who sings them," he says.
Hugh Cooney says he tried during his life to make a difference and make things better in the companies he worked in. Even in his final days, his desire to make a difference remains and he hopes his legacy will benefit many long after his fight finishes.
A Hugh Cooney fundraising bank account has been set up at the Bank of Ireland, St Stephen's Green. Account Number: 10118125 Sort Code: 900084