Jamie Harkin from Londonderry was just 12-years-old when he was diagnosed with cancer. Now, just weeks after his 18th birthday, Jamie’s mum Trisha shares how proud she and husband Damien are of their beloved son, as he fights to support others battling the disease.
Six years ago the lives of the Harkin family from Londonderry were turned upside down, when their son Jamie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma - an uncommon form of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.
Reflecting on that awful period in their lives, mum Trisha says: “I was pregnant at the time with Jamie’s younger sister, Faith, and Jamie was 11-years old. He had just found out he had been accepted into the prestigious Christi College.
“He was getting lots of chest and throat infections, but we thought it may have been stress as they had been studying hard, or that the tiredness was just part of getting older. There were lots of reasons why he may not have been feeling himself, but he never took the day off school. He was an A* pupil and still is to this day.
“I gave birth to my daughter Faith in February 2011, and Jamie absolutely doted on her. At that stage he was now in his third term of first year, and would race home from school to help me with the baby as my husband, Damien, was working long days in Belfast at the time.
“Six months later Jamie had lost so much weight, he was always exhausted after school and he’d had a chronic cough.
“Faith had bad colic and wasn’t sleeping when I turned to my husband and said ‘I’m really worried about Faith.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘It’s Jamie I’m worried about’.
“It was only then that we realised something was seriously wrong.”
The family then visited their GP and demanded blood tests and a chest X-ray, and one week before Jamie was due to finish his first year at Lumen Christi, he was taken into Altnagelvin Hospital.
Two days and an MRI scan later, the doctor informed the family that Jamie had a large tumour in his chest which was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and were told that he would have to go to Belfast for treatment.
“Once you step into that world, you never step out of it,” Trisha said.
“You feel guilty, you wish you’d spotted the warning signs earlier. There are 12 symptoms of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Jamie had every single one of them. But this was six years ago now, and there was a lot less awareness then.’’
For the following six weeks, the family were forced to drive from Londonderry to Belfast and back again every single day as Jamie endured chemotherapy treatment.
“There is a lot of pressure on families travelling to Belfast from the North West area. Adult oncology is very different, but as a child outpatient undergoing chemotherapy we found there should be better services for families having to travel up and down for treatment.’’
Sadly, Jamie relapsed after becoming symptomatic in September 2012, shortly after being given the all-clear.
“I just held my head in my hands and thought ‘how do we get him through this?’” Trisha said.
“My advice to any parent of a child with cancer is just to take things five minutes at a time. People say to take it day by day, but that’s too difficult.’’
After Jamie’s stem cell transplant in October 2013, he started writing a journal while he was in remission in a bid to help raise awareness of cancer among young people.
“It was then that one of his friends suggested that he start using social media, and Jamie’s Journie really began to take off,” said Trisha.
She added that raising awareness and providing help for families going through cancer treatment has helped the family enormously.
“We have always taught our children to reach for the stars, and they certainly do that! In fact, Jamie achieved seven A*s and four A’s in his GCSE’s while lying on the sofa on morhpine! He’s now doing four A-Levels and never misses a day of school.
“So far, Jamie’s Journie has raised over £40K in less than two years, which goes towards schemes such as Sorcha’s Prizes.”
Named in memory of local woman Sorcha Glenn, who tragically passed away from cervical cancer aged just 23-years old, Sorcha’s Prizes gives families affected by cancer the chance to enjoy a holiday of a lifetime.
“Again Sorcha’s tragic case could have been prevented had she been allowed a smear test sooner. We need to raise more awarenss of cancer symtoms, as it is truly preventable,” Trisha said.
The non-profit organisation also helps families financially affected by cancer, and was recently able to contribute to the wedding of Leah Simpson, a 35-year-old mother-of-five suffering from terminal cancer.
Trisha explained added: “Jamie is so kind and generous. Everything he does has a personal edge, for example he asked Sorcha’s beloved boyfriend Matt, who is an artist, to design the logo for Sorcha’s Prizes.
“He had been struggling to draw after Sorcha’s passing, and this was Jamie’s small way of hopefully helping him through that.
“Jamie fights illness every day, and is set to travel to London to assess the affects the treatment has had on his body.
“But seeing him get up and fight, and put on his school uniform every single day, has myself and my husband bursting with pride.’’
Trisha added: “Jamie’s Journie has helped bring the whole family together, and Faith loves the parties we throw where families going through the same thing can meet and talk. It just provides that support system, whenever your child is diagnosed with cancer, you live in a bubble.
“You could be in a room full of people and if they don’t understand, you feel so alone. Whereas we understand what it’s like.”
Trisha added that Jamie’s Journie is cross-community organisation and open to everyone, regardless of whether you are based in the Northern or Republic of Ireland.
“Jamie’s Journie was designed to help other people but it’s ended up massively helping him. Until you’ve been put in that position yourself, the isolation that comes with cancer is hard to understand, even your own family don’t understand it.
“When people reach out to Jamie, he’ll call to their house just to chat, or he’ll answer their messages in the middle of the night. He’s there to support you.
“It’s so good for him to have something so positive, rather than getting wrapped up in negativity.
“It’s an incredible thing to be able to help people in the same situation, its been a tough journey - but it’s ended so positively with Jamie’s Journie.”