Surviving and thriving
Diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2008, Eric Byrne feared the worst. But now, over six years on, he is enjoying life more than ever and is a man determined to do what he can to raise awareness of lung cancer.
“My diagnosis hit me like a thunderbolt,” says Eric, “But after my treatment was finished, I was determined not to waste my experience and forget about it. I’d read about how badly supported lung cancer was in terms of research and how patients often didn’t receive the support they needed. Rather than just thinking about how I was going to cope, I began to think about the people who would come after me.”
This mindset led to Eric attending a conference at Stirling University. At it, top oncologists and politicians talked about the great strides that had been made in the fields of blood cancers, bowel cancer and breast cancer. But what Eric noticed was the absence of any mention of lung cancer. So when the presentations were over and the public were asked if they had any questions, Eric stood up and said:
“Well, what I would like to know is if lung cancer is killing approximately 40,000 UK citizens every year, why is it only getting between 4-7% of research funding?” Eric says the first politician answered, “Well, it’s not a sexy cancer.’ The next one said, “It’s largely self-inflicted,” and another got up and said, “Well, it doesn’t really affect children.” But it was when the final speaker said, “Lung cancer survivors are their own worst enemies, because they’re such poor advocates for the cause,” that Eric knew he had to take action.
“That was really the big push that started me doing whatever I could to raise awareness of lung cancer and the needs of lung cancer patients,” says Eric. “So far, I’ve spoken to doctors and nurses at Victoria hospital in Kirkcaldy. I gave a patient’s perspective on a document for healthcare professionals called The management of lung cancer and patients. My story has also featured in many newspapers and on local radio, and I’ve been heavily involved in the Detect Cancer Early programme in Scotland.”
Eric is also a tremendous supporter of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation and has got involved in many aspects of our work, as he explains. “A highlight was giving a short history of my story as part of a Roy Castle presentation to the Scottish parliament. Because of the charity, I’m also currently part of a survivors volunteer group set up by the government. This is looking at the best way to spend £5 million over the next five years to support people after they’ve finished treatment.
“I also really enjoy working with the charity’s employees,” adds Eric. “I’ve often stood with them at Glasgow Central station, chatting to passers-by and raising money. Plus, I’ve also volunteered as a steward and a photographer at the Foundation’s Dream Walk in Glasgow. That’s always great fun and has a really good atmosphere. Whatever I can do to help, I do, because the charity can make a big difference with the support of people behind it.”
Asked if he feels his efforts are making a difference, Eric says its hard to quantify, but he would like to think so: “When you talk to somebody who stops to put money in the collection tin, you tell them that if they have any symptoms or anything like that, don’t hang about, go and get yourself checked out. Because I’ve done that on so many occasions, you hope you’ve planted enough seeds that some people will take action, whether that’s days, weeks or months later.
“I also hope the media coverage of my personal story, which involved my daughter pushing me to go to the doctor, has encouraged other people to do the same and catch any problems early. And, of course, I do know first hand that people I’ve met in online communities, such as HealthUnlocked, the Cancer Buddies Network and LUNGevity, have benefited from my words. People who’ve already been through it all really can show someone who’s in despair that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“But the big difference we need to make is changing public perception of lung cancer and the attitudes of politicians towards it. That has improved a little, but much more must happen. We must get a far greater focus on lung cancer, because it’s an illness that really does deserve more attention and more funding. So I’ll keep banging my drum until that happens.”
Eric’s determination to raise awareness of lung cancer and improve the lives of people diagnosed with the illness really is inspiring. So much so that the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation awarded him our ‘unsung hero’ award at our annual awards ceremony in May 2012. A typically unassuming Eric says that this came as a total surprise, and that what he gets back from his work raising awareness of lung cancer is reward enough:
“Before my illness, before I started to do all of this work, I was looking after number one. Now, I make myself available to everybody. I’m much more friendly and approachable now. My family and friends have noticed that, and I know they prefer the new Eric to the one before my diagnosis.
“If something is happening, I want to be there, I want to be part of it. I’ve never visited so many people and gone to so many parties and events since I was in my teens. I’m out all the time now, and I’m having a great time. So as well as helping others, there’s a mutual benefit. I’m surviving and thriving, and after recently being told by my doctor that I no longer have to see him, I feel very confident about the future.”
Be more Eric
There are many ways you can help improve the lives of other people affected by lung cancer, from sharing your story, to reviewing patient or carer information, to raising awareness of lung cancer in your community.
Call 0333 323 7200 and choose ‘option one’ to find out more, or visit www.roycastle.org/get-involved