'I got cancer at 17 – and now I know that teen survivors stick together'
CanTeen offers vital support, says Celine Naughton
As Alan Gorman opened a packet of sweets in the Alton Towers theme park a teenager came up to him and said, "What have you got?"
"Jellies – you want one?"
"No, I mean, what kind of cancer have you got?"
"Oh that? Hah! Hodgkins Lymphoma. And you?"
And so began one of many friendships during a weekend away for members of CanTeen, the support group for young people with cancer.
Alan's symptoms came to light when, at the age of 17, he had moved away from home in Swords, Co Dublin, to start a computer course in Dundalk IT. While his first taste of independence was accompanied by a certain fatigue, he thought little of it.
"I put it down to college life, studying, eating the wrong things, travelling home at weekends . . . I assumed that's why I felt so tired and had no appetite for food," he says. He saw a GP who prescribed multivitamins, then a course of antibiotics. They didn't help.
As the Christmas holidays approached, his feet became sore. "When I went home one weekend, it took me 20 minutes to walk 500 yards.
"Mum took me to a clinic and the doctor there sent me straight to Beaumont Hospital."
After a series of tests, Alan was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
While his parents were devastated, their composed son replied: "Okay, now we know what it is – where do we go from here?"
Six months of chemotherapy followed, but the cancer returned. A second course of chemo was followed by stem cell treatment and he had a hip replacement in 2010.
"It was tough," he says. "I did get to a low point, especially during a spell in an isolation ward, but I got out of it."
After one further relapse, Alan was put on a new and aggressive form of chemotherapy, with positive results.
Now 22 and a second-year student of media studies in Coláiste Dhúlaigh, he is more than a year in remission.
When he first heard about CanTeen, he was reluctant to join.
"I wanted to keep my cancer separate from my life," he explains.
"I didn't want it to dominate or limit me in any way."
Far from it. During his recovery, Alan did a website course, learned to drive – and put aside his earlier reservations to join CanTeen.
He's glad he did.
"It's great craic!" he says. "Everyone looks out for each other and we've had some fabulous weekends away.
"We'll soon be heading to Monaghan for a four-day activity break including canoeing, rock-climbing, banana boating and god knows what else. Bring it on!"