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‘Cancer doesn’t have to be the end’: Rothes dad wants to take positivity to Brave stage

Paul Stewart is taking part in Brave 2022 in recognition of the "phenomenal" work Friends of Anchor does. Picture: Colin Rennie/Friends of Anchor
Paul Stewart is taking part in Brave 2022 in recognition of the "phenomenal" work Friends of Anchor does. Picture: Colin Rennie/Friends of Anchor

Paul Stewart has always believed in the power of positivity.

But after being diagnosed with non-hodgkin lymphoma in 2019, that belief was put to the test as he focused on getting well again for his two young boys.

The 37-year-old first noticed a “big crumb” sized lump on his neck in March 2018 but did not think anything of it until that crumb grew to a pea and then to a split pea.

By November that year he had started to wear his collar up to hide the lump, but as soon as his wife Jan noticed, she marched him to the doctor.

After weeks and months of tests coming back inconclusive, Mr Stewart had the lump – now the size of a golf ball – removed and a biopsy confirmed it was non-hodgkin lymphoma.

Now in remission, Mr Stewart describes his cancer as a “bump in the road”.

He is gearing up to take part in Friends of Anchor’s all-male fashion show Brave and is determined to make the most of the “once in a lifetime opportunity”.

The Rothes Rovers football coach is particularly keen to raise money for Friends of Anchor to thank them for the support they gave him when he was trying to work out how to break the news to his boys, Riley, 11, and Fletcher, eight.

‘Cancer’s not going to get your dad’

He said: “When I got my diagnosis I went to Aberdeen and saw the specialist Dr (Dominic) Culligan – he was really good with everything, and went through the different stages and my treatment plan.

“Although I handled the diagnosis quite well, I really kept it to myself – I only announced it once I started my treatment. My wife was the only one I spoke to about it.

“My concern was that people might know about it, their kids would overhear and then say something to one of my boys – I didn’t want them to find out the wrong way.

“I reached out to a number of different people, including MacMillan and Friends of Anchor and they provided me with ideas and advice on how to tell the kids.”

This included drawing pictures of where the cancer was so that Riley and Fletcher understood, and choosing words that would be used consistently, like “special medicine” or “treatment”.

Mr and Mrs Stewart, from Rothes, were also advised to talk to them like kids but not “shield them” from what was happening.

Mr Stewart admitted it had been the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.

“My youngest was about five at the time, so for him it was simply ‘dad’s not well’ but the oldest one broke down as soon as I mentioned the C-word,” he said. “When I asked him why, he said ‘everyone who has cancer dies’.

“I told him ‘don’t worry, cancer’s not going to get your dad’. I told him it was just a bump in the road and that I was getting medicine and treatment. That’s the way I had to do it, to be a positive as possible.”

Paul Stewart and his wife Jan – who nominated him for Brave – and sons Riley and Fletcher. Submitted pic.

Nurses were ‘awesome’

Undergoing cancer treatment is stressful for anyone, but at the same time as the diagnosis came Mr Stewart was also going through compulsory redundancy from his job in Inverness.

Two weeks after his biopsy, he was offered a new job as a supply planner at Gordon and MacPhail and – after going in to explain the situation while still wearing his bandages – he started the week before his six months of treatment began.

He worked Monday to Wednesday, before heading to the Anchor Unit in Aberdeen for two days of treatment, made up of chemotherapy and rituximab.

Mr Stewart hailed the staff in the unit, describing the nurses as “awesome” and the Anchor team as “brilliant”.

“Going through chemo can be quite a daunting thought, especially when you have two wee toots at home to get back to,” he added.

“But the nurses were great at putting me at ease. You have to be a certain type of person to work in a place like that, I think, and for the average Joe like me who likes a bit of banter they took me on and were ready for a laugh.

“If someone is a bit quieter they can switch to that too – they just make you feel part of the family, and like you’re going in for a chat with your mates.

“It was hard going though – by the time I got home on the Friday night I was goosed until the Sunday morning, and then was back to work again.

“But it was just a bump in the road, and it was positivity that got me through.”

Confidence growing with each rehearsal

Mr Stewart’s treatment went “exceptionally well” and in January 2020, he was told he was in remission.

However, plans for a “maintenance treatment” were interrupted when the UK went into lockdown on March 23 – with just one dose administered.

This was a blow for Mr Stewart as although doctors had assured him he did not necessarily need the treatment, he was keen to ensure the cancer was gone once and for all.

“There had been a bit of toing and froing about whether to have the maintenance treatment and then I had one dose and a week later we were in lockdown, and the decision was taken away from me,” he said. “That was hard.

“But there were lots of people in a far worse position than me. Through all this I do consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.”

‘Cancer doesn’t have to be the end’

Now Mr Stewart is preparing for Brave after being nominated by his wife, and said although it is well out of his comfort zone, he is ready to embrace it – and can already feel his confidence building as rehearsals progress.

He described it as an “honour” to be selected out out hundreds of applicants.

“The whole cancer experience has changed my outlook and philosophy on things,” he said. “I try to be a bit more forward – at the end of the day, you never know what’s round the corner so I just try to do the best I can for myself and my family.

“I have always been a believer in positivity and the power of it. It sounds cliched, but if I didn’t have positivity on my side I wouldn’t have got through this the way I did.

“Cancer doesn’t have to be the end. For me, taking part in Brave is a way of spreading the word – yes, cancer is scary and it can mean bad things, but for so many others it doesn’t have to be like that – they survive it and go forward with their lives.”

Brave takes place at the Beach Ballroom in Aberdeen on May 5 and 6. Tickets are on sale now, visit the Friends of Anchor website to join the waiting list.

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