Thursday 23 October 2014

'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.

Gerry Collins
Although dying of terminal lung cancer, Gerry Collins says the last 10 years since he gave up smoking have been the best of his life.

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.

"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."

Irish Independent

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