Friday 23 August 2019

'I was pretty much broke and facing six rounds of chemotherapy' - trainee plumber (26) diagnosed with cancer

Not everyone feels comfortable receiving help, but at a difficult point in his life, trainee plumber Jamie Cremins (26) realised he needed support

Helping hand: Jamie Cremins from Kerry says the funding he received from the Marie Keating
Foundation was invaluable. Photo: DON MacMONAGLE
Helping hand: Jamie Cremins from Kerry says the funding he received from the Marie Keating Foundation was invaluable. Photo: DON MacMONAGLE

'I was at the gym doing weights, I think, when I felt a lump in my neck in June last year. I thought it was swollen glands - you never really think the worst do you? - but a few weeks later, I was in work and just put my hand up to my neck and realised what had been a small lump was now the size of a golf ball.

I've Crohn's disease and usually when I get something, it's to do with that, so I just assumed this was the same. A few months earlier I'd had a major operation on my stomach. Basically my bowel was giving up, so I had several surgeries and had only recently returned to my job in Lidl, where I was working at the time, when I felt the lump.

My doctor sent me to CUH (Cork University Hospital) where they did a biopsy and when they came in to the room, I could tell something was up. They told me it was Hodgkin's lymphoma. I had to ask 'what's that?'. When they told me it was a form of cancer, I swore. My immediate reaction was 'this is me done for' but then I took a step back and listened to what they were saying about how it isn't the worst kind of cancer, that it could be treated.

But fighting the cancer was only part of the battle. After my first operation on my stomach, I'd been off work for four months, then I'd had the second surgery and was off again. By the time I got the lump in my neck, my 'emergency' savings were already pretty much gone. I'd spent about seven or eight months surviving on illness benefit payments of €188 a week, which, once my rent was taken out of it, left me on about €100 a week for electricity bills and food. Now I was back on €188 again with no savings left.

I was pretty much broke and facing six rounds of chemotherapy without any idea when I'd be earning again.

It was one of the incredible nurses at CUH who mentioned the Marie Keating Comfort Fund, set up for people like me with cancer and facing financial difficulties, and suggested I apply for it. At the start, I don't know, I probably didn't want to. I had so many emotions going on, but I was looking at the bills coming in - rent, the car backed up - and I knew I wasn't able to afford it all.

I was also kind of down in the dumps. I felt I had a run of bad luck and I wasn't expecting any miracles. So when I heard I was getting money from the comfort fund, it felt like a weight lifted. I've been asked by the Marie Keating Foundation not to say exactly how much I received (the largest single payment the organisation makes is €1,000), but it was enough for me to tax my car and pay off some bills. That might not sound a lot to some people, but to me, it was invaluable.

With my car on the road, I could get in and out to chemo, I could travel from Macroom, where I was living at the time, to be close to the hospital, back home to Kerry to see my parents, my family, my friends and my girlfriend.

The people who you love and who love you are what get you through when you're dealing with cancer. Being able to see them meant the world to me. I felt that, no matter what I was facing with my health and my finances, at least I was able to get home and see people and take my mind off the situation I was in.

When you're sick with chemotherapy, you can't really leave the house and walk around because your immune system is compromised and you can't risk picking up an infection. So you're sat looking at the four walls of the house every day, feeling like everyone else is out and about and you're not.

It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't been in that position, and I know some people will just pay off their car tax and not give it a second thought. I don't know that anyone will really understand just how much it meant to me that I was able to go online and tax my car.

If I'd been out and seen someone collecting in the street, I'd always have thrown in a euro or two, but I don't think I really ever thought about where it was going, that it could be helping someone like me.

I think a lot of men like to consider themselves macho men or alpha males and there can be a stigma associated with accepting help. People can feel awkward about taking charity. Even stupid things, like you'll see someone lifting a heavy box and they'll insist they don't need help, but you'll see them struggling. I guess my gut reaction to applying for support was 'God, I don't want to'. But looking at my situation, I knew it would be a huge help.

I was stuck. My back was against the wall with my health and my finances and, when you're in trouble like that, there's nothing wrong with saying 'I need help'.

Swallowing my pride - that's not even the right phrase - but sucking up whatever I had to accept charity wasn't the hardest thing. The hardest thing was feeling guilty about being a burden to my family. I didn't tell my parents about the cancer until a day or so after because I felt so guilty about always being sick. They've been wonderful to me and I know they'd do anything for me, but it meant a lot to me just to be able to get around without having to ask people to drive me to chemo.

Marie Keating never ask you to pay back the comfort fund, but I want to do something to show my appreciation. While I was sick, my family did a collection and raised about €100 for them and when I can, I want to do the same. That funding was invaluable to me and I'm sure it is for the other 530 families it helps - people with mortgages to pay, school uniforms to get, home insurance payments to make.

During those months when I was getting hammered, when I felt sick and tired and couldn't go outside or move my hands because the veins were stiff from the chemo, or when I'd to get injections into my bone marrow which left me with sore hips that made walking difficult - when you feel like that, the last thing you want to be worried about is money. There's nothing wrong with getting help.

In conversation with Chrissie Russell

Irish Independent

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