Hope springs eternal
Paul Glackin is battling pancreatic cancer in the most public of ways - broadcasting near daily updates on Twitter- hoping to inspire others to keep fighting.
Some days are better than others, understandably. But Paul doesn’t shy away from the bad either. “You need those to help refocus on what’s positive,” Paul opines. “You can’t ever lose sight of the good things, despite everything else.”
What’s remarkable about Paul’s outlook is how it has, in turn, attracted a wealth of kindness from strangers right across the globe.
The likes of presenter Bibi Baskin, actor Rory Cowan, PR guru Hugh Gillanders and many more now regularly check in on him, despite never having pressed-flesh. Paul now counts them among his friends.
Most recently the avid Celtic FC fan received an inspiring video message from former club and Irish manager Martin O’Neill. The Northern Irish man, whose wife faced her own fight with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma some years back, described Paul as a “fighter”, and wished him well with his future treatment.
To this day Paul still can’t remember driving from Virginia to Cavan General Hospital. Less than an hour earlier he’d been delivered a bombshell out of the blue by being told he “might” have pancreatic cancer. He’s driven the near 30-kilometre distance countless times. So accustomed is Paul, that if he closes his eyes and concentrates hard enough, from memory alone, he can navigate each corner, the straights at Billis, the undulating surface around Lavey, and the roundabouts in Cavan Town. The only thing he recalls from his journey that fateful day is calling his wife Geraldine to try prepare her for the bad news to come.
That day in January 2020 remains a blur to Paul. In some ways the fears, which blanked his mind, still remain.
Paul had been jaundice for weeks. “Bart Simpson yellow,” as he puts it, trying to bring levity to the situation looking back.
It was serious though, so serious that Paul’s work colleagues had even begun voicing concern through quiet whispers at the water-cooler.
“I was wearing my glasses half-ways down my nose thinking people wouldn’t notice, but they did. I was going to Galway for a meeting the next day so I said I’d go to the doctor on the way. ‘You know you could have pancreatic cancer’ she said. Those words... they just dropped me.”
Paul never made it to Galway for his scheduled meeting. Doctors kept him in for blood tests, with the medics confirming their worst suspicions not long after.
He spent much of the next four weeks in hospital, transferred to Beaumont and later Vincent’s. Doctors there “blasted” Paul’s cancer with radium, hoping to shrink the size of the growth. Their plan was simple. Get the cancer reduced enough to safely attempt what’s known as a Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy.
But the surgery, scheduled in September last year, though was a “failure”.
“The cancer had spread to other parts of my body in the meantime and so it was too dangerous to proceed,” shares Paul. His voice is low, not weak, but exhausted by the ordeal his body has gone through to date with chemotherapy. When the Celt spoke with Paul, he’s sitting at his Virginia home. Wife Geraldine, as always, is not far away.
News of the failed surgery came a crushing blow. All the while Paul continued to unerringly and apologetically document his progress on social media. The night before the failed surgery he’d asked for prayers. The day after he wrote: ‘All [in] not going to make it 8 to 11 months they told me today, so [I’d] too many complications’.
“I was sharing it because I was sure I was going to be saved,” recognises the Cavan dad-of two, and granddad to little Matthew.
Paul admits now, going back to his first post, perhaps subconsciously he was living in hope for someone, anyone, would come forward and give a more uplifting prognosis than the doctors had for a condition many refer to as the ‘silent killer’ of cancers. With good reason too. Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all cancers. Most patients fail to experience symptoms until the tumour has already grown large enough to begin affecting surrounding organs. By then, all too often, treatment is useless.
Paul’s uplift began after he received acupuncture at Monaghan Hospital, as much for relief as anything else. He is steadfast in believing it proved transformative to his mood changing.
“I decided from there, if I continued to be depressed, all I’m going to do is drag my family down with me, because they were suffering too. So I said to myself I’m going to make the very most of my life, as long as that may last.”
Already Paul has defied all medical prediction.
He is still undergoing regular chemotherapy, and one of his most recent checks showed his cancer has shrunk by almost a fifth.
He has also been well enough to get the first of two Covid vaccine jabs and remains on course to get his second if all still goes to plan.
“I’ve had friends that died [from pancreatic cancer], but that was 10 years ago, and the doctors are more capable now treating it than ever before. It’s the same with a lot of cancers. Back then someone would be told they’d cancer and everyone in the room would look down at the floor. Now there’s hope,” reflects Paul.
“[Hope has] been my only way to get over this, to get through it, by seeing positive and being positive. Isn’t it better to be an optimist than a pessimist? I have a family, and I owe them that at least.”
Paul memorises vividly the first time meeting his wife Geraldine who, through it all, has been his “biggest cheerleader”.
Walking Dublin’s O’Connell Street destined to take the same short-cut he always did to work via the mall connecting Prince’s and Henry Street, on this day however, and enjoying the softness of the weather, Paul strayed past the GPO instead. It was there, between the Easter Monday bullet pocked pillars, he encountered his wife-to-be.
Geraldine was visiting the Capital with her mum and, playing it cool as a cucumber, Paul suggested maybe meeting out in Virginia the following weekend.
“Well I said hello to her mother first. Geraldine was a bit younger than I was, but I still said ‘sure I might see ya’. That was it really. The rest, as they say is history. We’ve never parted since. If I’d kept going the way I was going, I might never have met her. I couldn’t even imagine that now.”
Paul’s teenage son Harry and daughter Annie have been mainstays in his recovery too.
As has his little grandson Matthew, now almost two years. “Everyday is a different mood. It’s funny, he comes in and pulls and runs, just normal boy behaviour, but it’s so good to see. You really love to see it.”
One of the main side affects of such intensive chemo is that Paul’s right ankle no longer works as it once did. It means he must carry his leg more when he walks. He gets pins and needles in his hands, and tired more quickly than he did before. Still, every day is a new day, enthuses Paul.
“The tumour is being worked on. I’m getting a different type of chemotherapy and, if it stays the same size, I get another three months of it and another three months of it.”
When he broke news of the shrinkage to family, Paul believes he could hear the “screams and roars” of delight from his sister Imelda all the way in Brighton. She is CEO of The Martlets Hospice, an independent charity that cares for adults with a life-limiting disease, and where a cure is no longer possible.
Incredibly, illness has in no small part reshaped Paul’s perspective on life. Examining the past, he sees how he spent “too much time” focusing on work, and not as much time perhaps with the people he loves.
The pandemic too has helped remould Paul’s opinions. The upshot of having to stay at home to avoid having his weakened immune system compromised further, is he has had the chance to enjoy more time with those closest to him.
“Seeing how I lived my life, sometimes in a car driving to Dublin every day, sometimes Cork, getting up early, arriving home late, it was no way to live life. I was 24 hours work a day kinda guy,” he says.
“In some ways the pandemic has been a blessing. It’s not a cliché, but I’ve actually never had as much time to do things as I have now.
“So I have to keep believing, now, if not for myself but for everyone else around me. I have to keep trying. If the chemo keeps working the timeline is years, not months any longer.
“I keep hoping the tumour reduces by 20 per cent, and then another 20 per cent, until hopefully I can start being occupied by other things, and not just preoccupied by this cancer, because it’s hard not to be.”
Paul’s advice for others is simple.
“Worrying won’t cure you. Worrying will only make things worse. It’ll never make you better and only drag you down. Make the most of what you have.”
The tweets, and speaking with people, including good friends Paul had lost touch over the years, has been “rewarding”.
Paul had a nomadic start to life. Born at the Surgical in Cavan Town, his dad Charlie was a guard from Dungloe and his mother Molly (nee Gaffney) hailed from Mullahoran. For the first seven years of Paul’s life, his family bounced around Cavan and Monaghan - Ballyconnell, Shantonagh, Lough Egish, Castleblayney - before settling in Virginia, where he lives with his own family.
There are several places too that he holds dear, and one day intends, once well enough, to revisit.
He yearns for picturesque Dungloe, home to his father’s family; to experience the drum and fizz of life in multi-cultural Brighton; and watch the sun set on the mountainous dunes overlooking Carrickfinn beach. Oh how he wishes to one day hear the roll of the waves lapping the cropped curved strand, while infinite speckles of sand tickle between his toes.
“I’m not as strong as I was. I was always a strong enough individual, tried to keep fit. Had a dad bod. But this has really taken it out of me... You can’t even believe,” says Paul.
“But I have to keep going. In front of me is my future, beside me is my family and friends. I know I can do this... I have to do this for them.”