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Jean Harrington on why she couldn’t consider buying a daffodil for Daffodil Day – until now…

Credit: Youghal OnlineJean Harrinton on why she could not - until now - consider buying a daffodil for Daffodil Day.

I’ve always been a great sport, and would consider myself an altruistic person. I have enthusiastically fundraised for different charities over the years, and partook in dinner dances, fun-days, table quizzes, sponsored fasts, sponsored walks and parachute jumps (just the one actually!). When a friend suggested that we run Dublin’s Mini Marathon for the Irish Cancer Society, I didn’t hesitate. I had seen thousands of women running for them year after year and was aware of the amount of people whose lives were touched by cancer. I always considered myself lucky that I never actually needed their services.

One day, this all changed.

When my father was first diagnosed with cancer in May 2003, his consultant decided not to do chemotherapy on him, but said that to remove his tumour first would be the best course of action. I didn’t know anything about cancer, so I decided to ring the Irish Cancer Society’s helpline to see if they had any advice they could give me.

The lady who answered the phone was very polite and concerned, but said she was unable to help, and there was no nurse present who could take my call, but she took my number and said I would get a call back.

Two weeks later my Dad was admitted to hospital, where he underwent microsurgery, to allow the surgeons ascertain the size and extent of the tumour. He told me that everything appeared to be fine, and they scheduled his operation for 23 May. Dad assured me that everything was under control, but I like to get a second opinion. Just before his operation, I rang the cancer helpline again, seeking reassurance that this was the best course of action. Again, I was told that there was no nurse available to take my call, but once again a kind lady took my name and number and said I would get a callback.

The operation to remove the tumour from his stomach was deemed successful by his surgeons; even though they were surprised to discover that it was the size of a football. I expected that this was the beginning of his recovery, and that every day after that would be a day of healing. Once again I was wrong.

He developed an infection, and his body started to shut down in shock and protest at the scale of operation. Ten days after they removed his tumour, he was put onto a life support machine. I was inconsolable. I was angry. I prayed for a miracle.

I wanted someone to blame. I rang the Irish Cancer Society’s helpline for the third time; I wanted them to tell me that it would be okay; that he would come around. Once again, a kind lady told me that no one was available to take my call, but that a nurse would call me back.

When the nurses switched off Dad’s life support machine, I still hadn’t spoken to anyone in the Irish Cancer Society. They clearly were short of resources, but rather than rally round them and start fundraising so they could help the next person, I’m afraid to say I lost myself in grief and blame. When I saw anyone selling daffodils for them, I would glare at them, willing them to ask me to buy a daffodil so I could tell them my feelings. Luckily the volunteers were wise enough to let me pass by unobstructed.

This grief and anger stayed for many years, longer than I expected it to. When I heard the ads for Daffodil Day year after year, it brought back my familiar feelings of loss, pain and grief. This year, however, the anger was missing. I seem to have finally accepted that my Dad, Robert Harrington, who died at 55; six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, is no longer in my life. I miss him SO much, and I feel a great sense of loss that he is not involved in my life. But I also accept it. This year, almost eight years after my father’s death, I think I’m ready to buy a daffodil.

NOTE: A friend who was fundraising for the Irish Cancer Society made contact with them last year on my behalf. They apologised for the situation I had been in (no apology was needed), and they said they have remedied the personnel problem. People who need to talk to someone about cancer should have no problems getting through to the right person there, and shouldn’t be put off by my story. My mother had a cancer scare late last year, and when I rang them, I was immediately put through to a nurse who advised me on the best course of action.

National Cancer Helpline: 1800 200 700 (Mon-Thurs 9-7, Friday 9-5)

Jean Harrington still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. For that reason, she does lots of things. She thought she’d like to be a writer, so she writes books. She thought publishing might be fun, so she also publishes other people’s books. Musicians are cool, so she plays the cello with a band and an orchestra in an attempt to stay cool. Then she started dabbling in teaching, as she thought that would be a suitable career for a mother (which she is). She should be too busy to blog, but when she started Tweeting (@jeanharrie) she realised 140 characters just wasn’t enough for what she had to say so she blogs at http://jeanharrington.ie

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