'My biggest fear now is how I will die. I hope I get to die peacefully'
Gerry Collins, the man at the centre of the latest quit smoking campaign, passed away last night. He gave this moving interview to Health & Living in January.
Published 14/01/2014 | 02:30
Every New Year, our television screens and billboards are blanketed with stop-smoking advertising campaigns. Usually, it is possible to distance yourself from them, as they bear the same anonymous warnings: Smoking causes cancer; smoking can damage your unborn child; smoking gives you heart disease.
This year, however, it has been difficult to ignore the plaintive look of one man staring out from our television screens. Gerry Collins (57) has just months to live. He is dying of terminal lung cancer caused by smoking.
Gerry is the thin, grey-haired man in the latest HSE stop-smoking campaign. He talks frankly and directly about his regret at not having given up smoking sooner. He looks directly into your eyes.
We see him going about his everyday life, coaching football, taking the Luas, and in another scene, sitting at the head of his kitchen table with his wife Fidelma and their three children, Lisa (30), Stephen (27) and Ciara (23).
The ads for the HSE quit smoking campaign have had a phenomenal impact, and have brought an unlikely sort of fame for Gerry. "I met a girl in the shop last week," he says, "and she said, 'are you the man in the ad? You look much better in the flesh.'" He laughs at what he calls his moment of superstardom.
Every smoker knows the statistics. One-in-two smokers will die of a smoking-related illness. And yet, no smoker ever thinks they will be the one. Gerry Collins is, as he calls it, 'a One'.
Gerry first got cancer in 2008, six years after he had given up smoking for good. His throat had swollen 'like a bullfrog' and he had a sore throat that would not go away, even after three courses of antibiotics.
An endoscope examination revealed he had a tumour at the base of his tongue.
"I was sent to oncologists and they told me it was from smoking. The treatment was lousy but the chances of a cure were quite high. I was very fit at that time. I was training, boxing and working out every day. They said they wouldn't have treated me if I wasn't so fit."
The treatment was intense and very traumatic. "I was on chemo five days a week, for 24 hours a day. It was disgusting, really horrific. I had 38 days of radiotherapy. I can only describe it as like if you were to lie in a desert with your mouth open and let your mouth burn for 38 days. I had blisters, I couldn't eat, I couldn't swallow, I had teeth pulled out in anticipation of something going wrong. It was horrific."
After his cancer treatment, he slowly began to rebuild his fitness levels.
"It's very difficult. Everyone gets to know you when you're going through treatment and then that sympathy is all gone. You're left in this void. People who have gone through tough cancer treatment will understand."
The road to recovery was long and arduous. "It took me about a year and half to recover. My saliva glands had been burnt away with treatment. I lost 80pc of my ability to create saliva, so sleeping at night is a difficulty -- I have to use a lubricating gel. My swallow was reduced. When training, it was difficult trying to get water in."
When he had recovered, he was approached by the HSE to take part in his first anti-smoking campaign.
"It was terrific from the point of view of my ego. I thought I had survived cancer so I was very happy to participate in the campaign."
Five years after he was first diagnosed, Gerry's cancer came back.
"I had broken ribs twice in the space of eight months, both on the same side. The pain wouldn't go away. Every time I got hit, it hurt. I took three months out from training and the pain still wasn't going away."
When he went to the doctor, they discovered one of his lungs was covered in fluid. It had to be removed with a needle.
"I was told, it's terminal, there's no point in taking it out. It's already spread. You need a miracle."
Gerry first started smoking as a young man.
"When I was growing up, smoking was cool. Look at The Fonz, with his cigarettes tucked under his sleeve. Even the look of it, walking around with a pack of cigarettes, was cool. It was all about image. I smoked because girls smoked. I didn't have that self-esteem when I was young, to be able to say I'm not a sheep, I'm not going to follow the pack."
He gave up smoking suddenly and immediately -- cold turkey -- over 10 years ago. "Most addicts have a fear of pain and pain is involved in recovery. 'I don't like pain so I'm not going to give up cigarettes, I'll just continue smoking.' That's just selfish laziness. You make a decision to stop and in that decision you accept there'll be discomfort, and behavioural changes required. Just get on with it! I don't buy into patches and hypnosis. Just make the decision that you won't smoke any more. It's a powerful thing."
Once you make that decision, says Gerry, good things will start to happen. "One door opens another door and that opens another. Your body will start asking you to do stuff. Here I am dying of cancer, but my life changed when I stopped smoking. I had better years in the 10 years that I wasn't smoking than in the 20 years I had been smoking. The last 10 years were the best 10 years of my life. I had my self-respect back."
Gerry hopes that his story will be enough to make people give up, and maybe even enough to put people off ever starting to smoke in the first place. "There are no positives in smoking a cigarette."
Making the ads meant spending some of his precious remaining time filming, doing interviews and promoting the campaign. Why did he want to do that?
"It was mostly for my children, my family. They're part of something great here with their father. They'll look back on it hopefully with pride and self-respect, saying 'the old man did good before he died and wasn't it great that we were part of it'. They're going to stand over my grave feeling much better about having participated in it.
"I know a man who died two weeks ago, dropped dead of a heart attack, never had a chance to say goodbye. I have a chance to see my kids every day, and they can come over here and have a cry if they want. I think I'm lucky. I'm grateful every day for that opportunity.
"My granddad, Maurice Collins, fought in the 1916 Rising. Those men knew the time and the date of their death, they knew they were going to be killed. They knew they had to get themselves in order. That's frightening stuff. I've been told eight months to a year. That was six months ago. I'm fit, my body is in great shape, so I could get longer."
Gerry gets treatment once a month now.
"They can't cure you so it's just a maintenance programme. It's heavy-duty stuff. It's still not nice. I get two weeks of peace and two weeks of feeling ill."
Has he changed how he lives now, as a result of his diagnosis? "You mean do I have a bucket list," he asks. "No. I've been there, done that. I've had a very exciting life in many ways. I've done lots of things abroad. I've had a good sports life.
"My biggest fear is how I will die. The idea of struggling for breath, and not being able to breathe scares the living hell out of me. I hope to be able to die peacefully. Before that, I just want peace and contentment with the kids. I'm just pedalling along and enjoying the view until the day comes."
For more information and for help with giving up smoking, go to www.quit.ie or call the national smokers' quitline on 1850 201 203.