Today is International Men’s Day and we are paying tribute to all our wonderful boys (big and small), dads, carers, grandads and siblings and all the friends who continue to support our families and hospital team. We also say a huge thank-you to all the men who work in the Unit and help to care so well for our children. From the Oncologists, nurses, surgeons, lab technicians, radiographers, care assistants, porters and everyone else in the wider team- you are all amazing!
We caught up with a special father and son duo, Sean and Paul Boyle who are good friends of the charity. Sean was diagnosed with a brain tumour in October 2021, aged 16 and following a very difficult couple of years of treatment, we are delighted to share that Sean has returned to school and is currently preparing to sit his A2 exams. Sean’s dad Paul is currently embarking on a multi-marathon fundraising campaign to raise vital funds to support the children, families and team in the Unit.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Paul, I’m married to Emma and we have four children, the youngest of whom is Sean. I’ve always been a sports fanatic and as well as running and coaching football, I’m lucky that sport plays a part in my job too as I lecture in Sport.
What is your connection to The Children’s Cancer Unit Charity?
My son Sean was diagnosed with a brain tumour in October 2021, aged 16, after experiencing dizzy spells. Sean and our family embarked on an incredibly difficult journey which involved surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and living in constant fear that the cancer would spread. It was also the start of a full year in hospital and a lot of very difficult decisions to make for Sean.
In your words, tell us about Sean and what he means to you.
Sean is fantastic and I honestly couldn’t wish for a better son. His courage and determination during treatment and now through his rehab and return to school, are just incredible.
Sean rarely complained and it was his positivity that gave the rest of our family hope. Like me, he’s always been sports mad- playing football, hurling and basketball competitively. Thanks to his determination and the help of some very special people, including former International Hockey player Matthew Bell who was also diagnosed with a brain tumour, Sean is working really hard to get back into sport and fitness, despite having been told a year ago that he may never walk again.
A year ago, we thought Sean would never return to school but in May this year he sat his AS exams and did really well and is now on track to do his A’ Levels and hopefully university after that. We are beyond proud of him.
Why are you choosing to fundraise for The Children’s Cancer Unit Charity and how is it going so far?
After spending a year in the Unit with Sean, my family and I saw how amazing the staff were and how hard they all work to ensure that our children get the best care. It was obvious to see how the money raised through the charity goes straight into the Unit to help families like ours as well as the team, so I really wanted to give something back.
This coincided with me starting to run again to help me deal with everything that was going on with Sean. I set myself a target to run 20 marathons and I’ve recently completed my 17th which was Dublin. I’ll be taking a break now until after Christmas and then my wife Emma and I will be running the London Marathon in April which we’re incredibly excited about. We’ll keep going until we reach our target and show the same determination that Sean has shown since his diagnosis.
Have you any advice for other dads whose child has received a cancer diagnosis and who will face a similar journey?
As dads, we tend to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for making sure the whole family are ok. I focused on everyone else’s worries and stress and bottled up my own and this had a very negative impact on my mental health. After a while, I realised that I needed to do something to help myself, which is when I started running marathons.
So, my advice to any dads going through a similar situation would be to look after your mental health and try to find some sort of outlet to deal with the stress. It’s the hardest thing to watch your child suffer and feel that you have to be strong for everyone else, but none of us are invincible so it’s really important to share your worries and be open about how you’re feeling too.
Tell us about yourself
I’m Sean. I’m 18 and I’m currently in my last year in St Joseph’s High School in Belfast, studying for my A’Levels. The last couple of years have been really tough since my brain tumour diagnosis and although I still have some way to go, I’m surrounded by a lot of good people who have really encouraged me, so I’m determined to get back to some sort of normal and back to playing sport in some way.
What does your dad mean to you and how does he inspire you?
I’ve always been inspired by my dad’s love of sport and how he’s used it to help others through coaching, teaching and now raising money for charity. I’m really proud of how much money he’s raised for the Children’s Cancer Unit Charity and the dedication he has put into his training. That’s really spurred me on in my recovery and although I don’t know exactly what the future holds, I’m determined to get back to playing sport and I’m going to a Cross Fit class which will help me to build my strength up again. So, it’s good that Dad and I are both working towards our fitness goals.
You’ve recently returned to school- what has that meant to you?
Being back at school has given me a sense of normality again. Being in hospital for almost a full year during treatment was really isolating and I missed my friends a lot so it’s been great to get back and have that social interaction with people my own age again. Although my original year group have all now moved on to university, it’s been good to make new friends and I’m hoping that I’ll join the others at university next year. School has allowed me to look ahead and see a future again.
Have you any plans for the future?
I hope to go to university to study Architecture next year, so I’m planning to work hard to get the grades I need to get in.
Like my dad, I’ve always been really into sport and before my diagnosis, I played football and hurling at Bredagh GAC as well as basketball. At one point I thought I’d never walk again, but I’ve been so inspired by a group of young people I’ve met through a Cross Fit class who’ve been through cancer treatment too, and it’s spurred me on to get out of my wheelchair and get back into some type of sport.
Do you have any words of advice for young people your age who are facing a cancer diagnosis?
Never give up. Although treatment and everything that comes with it can be absolutely brutal, try to stay positive no matter how tough things get or how hopeless you feel.
Paul is continuing his fundraising efforts in 2024, together with his wife Emma, so if you’d like to support them, visit their JustGiving page to make a donation.