Co Antrim man encourages other men affected by cancer to avail of peer mentoring service
Twenty-five year old Finnian Garbutt who lives in Whitehead, County Antrim, has shared the story of his own cancer diagnosis in a bid to encourage other men to avail of peer mentoring services offered by local charity Action Cancer.
The Peer Mentoring Programme which has been up and running for nine years, was established by Action Cancer to provide support through a team of dedicated volunteers, all of whom have personal experience of a cancer diagnosis.
Following three days of bespoke training and assessment, mentors are matched with clients based on shared experience, in relation to their specific cancer type and treatment pathway, to provide a listening ear and empathetic one-to-one support.
Mentors have a very real understanding of what mentees are going through and can therefore help them to improve motivation, reduce anxiety and develop coping strategies.
Finnian, a young actor who proposed to fiancée Louise just a few weeks ago, received a shocking cancer diagnosis in 2021, and describes the charity's mentoring programme as a "complete gamechanger" as he navigated an unexpected journey with the disease.
"I was diagnosed with skin cancer about a year ago. This came as a massive shock to me. I’ve never been one for sunbathing, sunbeds or sun worshipping. On a bright sunny warm day,you’d be more likely to find me seeking shade indoors than outside soaking up the rays.
"I first discovered a lump behind my right ear towards the end of 2020. Originally, I thought it was just an ingrown hair. It was not until lockdown measures eased and my barber shopreopened that I started to become concerned that something more sinister was going on.
"On shaving the right side of my head my barber noticed that the lump had grown quite substantially since the last time I had seen him. Because of its position behind my right ear, I couldn’t get a good look at it but following my new haircut my mum and Louise were definitely worried and alarmed about what they could see. It looked like a mole that had grown abnormally.
"Following a series of assessments, I then received the words that no one ever wants to hear, “you have cancer”. At this stage the doctors said it was a malignant melanoma but they were unsure at what stage I was at. My world came crashing down around me. I was 25 years old; I had my whole life and career ahead of me. I just kept thinking that I was going to die.
"Further assessments including an ultrasound and a fine needlebiopsy determined that the cancer was at Stage 3, it had spread into my neck. I then had to have a PET scan and full body CT scan to see if the cancer had spread into my organs. If so, I would have been dealing with a Stage 4 diagnosis. Thankfully the cancer had not reached that stage of development but Stage 3 melanoma would require intensive surgery and treatment.
"The weirdest thing is that I felt very fit and healthy and that nothing was wrong with me. It was almost as if they accidently had diagnosed me with cancer and were treating me by mistake.
"In February 2022 I underwent 12 hours of surgery where 75 lymph nodes were removed from my neck and face. Thesurgeon also removed the tumour behind my ear and a 2.5cm margin around it. Skin from my left thigh was used to patch my skull.
"I was told I could die; my plastic surgeons had warned me about how ill I could be following surgery. It kept being communicated to me that I was really sick, that I was one step away from being a terminal patient. I was just waiting to hear that I had tumours elsewhere throughout my body. I had already come to terms with the fact that I was going to die young. My defence mechanism was to expect the worst. I thought it was only going to be a matter of time.
"I found it really hard to share my worries and fears withfamily and friends. I would speak openly about it but felt others weren’t coping with what they were hearing from me so I bottled it all up and became a bit of a recluse as I didn’t want to burden anyone. I shared this with my health care team and they put me in touch with Action Cancer for some support.
"The Peer Mentoring service at Action Cancer linked me with a guy named Connor, who in recent years had undergonesurgery and treatment for a malignant melanoma. Connor was a complete stranger but during the first conversation we had he didn’t feel like one. Speaking to him helped me realise that there’s a chance I might not die from this disease and that I might just have a future to look forward to. Just then I decided, I’m not going to give up hope.
"One thing I’ve learnt from being unwell and being around people who have cancer, or have had cancer, is that there is an unspoken camaraderie. I’ve been truly honest with Connor and, because he had been through something similar, I knew he understood fully everything that I was expressing and this was an amazing help to me.
"I had previously focused on all the bad things that I had heard in the consultations. When I was told “there’s a good chance you’ll be ok”, all I heard was “you are going to die.”
"From speaking to Connor, I realised that I can still do things in my life. I can still achieve. Having another patient talk to you is much more impactful than having an oncologist say those same things.
"I have found the Peer Mentoring service to be life-changing and it has completely altered my perspective. It’s not that I no longer fear death but it has made me want to enjoy life and be less afraid of the future.
"I feel confident moving forward. I’ve got scars but I’m not ashamed of them, in fact I’m starting to embrace them. Itsucks to be in this position but bad things happen. Cancer doesn’t care, it impacts people of all ages.
"Unfortunately, other young people are going to have to go through it. I’m not going to be the youngest either. The only way I’ve managed to navigate my way through this is by the work of Action Cancer and other charities who have supported me along the way.
"I would highly recommend the service to other men affected by cancer. In the future I’d love to, health dependent, become a Peer Mentor myself and help others in a similar position.
I’m currently undergoing observation with dermatologychecks every 3 months, scans every 6 months and I’m continuing on Dabrafenib and Trametenib (cancer growth inhibitor treatment) in tablet form for the next 6 months.
"I recently proposed to my girlfriend Louise, and we’re enjoying being engaged and starting to make plans for our wedding. I’m getting back out again, going for auditions and continuing with my voiceover work, and pursuing my acting ambitions. Life is for living.
"I want to use this opportunity to encourage people, no matter what your attitude is to the sun, or what age you are, to check your skin regularly and don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. Early detection saves lives.
"My message to men affected by cancer is this. Don’t bury your head in the sand. There are people out there who will help you and guide you. Action Cancer’s Peer Mentoring Service is so unique and has been a complete gamechanger for me. Please come forward and avail of this amazing free service. It’s good to talk."
Action Cancer has eight male Peer Mentors ready to help men affected by skin, prostate, colorectal, throat and pancreatic cancers. The charity is calling upon men dealing with a diagnosis and treatment in any of these listed cancer types to come forward and find out more about the support available.
Leigh White, Services Support Officer at Action Cancer, heads up the Peer Mentoring service and explains why this service is so important:
“The Peer Mentoring service has grown and expanded in recent years, meaning that we can now offer support for a wide range of cancer types in both men and women. This November we are reaching out to men across Northern Ireland affected by cancer to let them know that we are here. The service is available via phone calls, text and face-to-face meet ups.
“Peer Mentoring can be accessed at the time of diagnosis or during or after treatment. It is fully flexible, so as a Mentee’s needs change, so can the mentoring support. It’s a service that has compassion and empathy at its core and it’s one that we are really proud of.”
Thirty-seven year-old Connor Graham, a Surveyor from Four Winds, South Belfast, is the mentor who supported Finnian as one of the charity’s recently trained Peer Mentors.
Connor was diagnosed with skin cancer in January 2021 and, whilst under continual assessment and review, is doing really well.
Connor wanted to use his experience to help others going through a similarly challenging time:
"Training to become a Peer Mentor and now actively supporting clients has been a great opportunity. It’s really satisfying to know that by listening and sharing a little of my experience, I can help my clients feel more supported and less alone."
For more information or to access the Peer Mentoring Programme please contact Leigh White at Action Cancer on 07580 133757 or email@example.com