Omagh, St Enda’s man Liam Grugan is faced with many daily challenges even though he’s in remission from cancer, but he tells Niall Gartland that he’s steadfast in his determination to get the very most out of life.
LIAM Grugan has officially been in remission from pancreatic lymphoma since May 2019 – but he says with pithy understatement that he’s been left with a few “parting gifts” after six gruelling rounds of chemotherapy.
The ability to hold a pen, walk and drive are things most of us take for granted as part of the everyday cycle of existence, but for the teacher at St Conor’s Primary School, they are something of a challenge.
A physical giant of a man who played for Tyrone during the ‘80s, well-wishers regularly inform him that he’s looking fantastic, but he’s been left with a set of symptoms known as peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that causes pain, numbness and fatigue.
It remains a daily battle, but his attitude from the very day he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2018 was that he was going to “fight this bastard” (not sure he expected that line to make the cut, but it neatly sums up the man’s impregnable mind-set).
Yet Liam knows himself he couldn’t have got to this point in the arduous road to recovery without the love and support of his family and friends.
His wife Mary – his “rock” whom he met at university 35 years ago – and sons Conan and Aaron have gone above and beyond, while the Omagh, St Enda’s and Tyrone GAA fraternity and his colleagues at St Conor’s have also been there every step of the way.
Every story has a beginning, and Grugan’s began in fairly innocuous fashion.
Tiredness and fleeting abdominal pains didn’t sound major alarm bells – but in hindsight he says he should have got himself checked out at the earliest hint that something was wrong.
“I started to notice I was more tired and irritable around January 2018. I went to the Source Gym and all of a sudden I wasn’t hitting my targets, and before long I was struggling at times to get through the day.
“I was also having severe cramps in my stomach, it’d come for three or four days, and then it would go away. I was coming up to 55 and thought maybe I was just getting older.
“I normally organise Sports Day as well, but it took an awful lot out of me that year. I was in severe pain and while it went away, I felt lethargic the entire summer.
“The cramps came back and it was desperate this time, so I went to the hospital and they did a lot of tests. They couldn’t find anything in the blood, urine or bowel.”
Grugan was shedding weight at a rapid rate however, so there was obviously something seriously amiss, and it wasn’t long before he was diagnosed with stage three pancreatic lymphoma – an extremely rare tumour of the pancreas.
“I always joked that I was 16 stone of pure muscle, but I started losing a lot of weight as well – I lost maybe three stone in three weeks.
“I went back to the hospital and got a scan, and then got a call from the health centre to say ‘the doctor wants to speak to you and could you bring your wife’, and I thought ‘oh God, this isn’t good’.
“Mary and I went that evening, and we were told it was a tumour. They knew it was around the pancreas which was a terrifying thought, but the first thing that came into my head was ‘as long as it’s not Mary or the two boys, that’s the main thing and I’m big enough to fight this’.
“I had to go right away to the cancer unit in Altnagelvin. My Oncologist was Dr Feargal McNicholl, he was absolutely brilliant along with the Macmillan nurses.
“We realised then it was millimetres off the pancreas – what I was diagnosed with was stage three highly aggressive pancreatic lymphona. It’s a cancer of the blood and thankfully for my sake it was just outside the pancreas.”
Grugan’s outlook wasn’t quite as dismal as if he’d been diagnosed with conventional pancreatic cancer, but a survival rate of around 30 percent – well, it speaks for itself.
A chance meeting with a local businessman shortly after his diagnosis summed up the prevailing unspoken attitude at the time, while he said visitors flocked to his home on the Dromore Road.
“I remember seeing a big businessman around the town a day or two late, and when he came over to me, I could tell by his body language and expression that he’d heard the news.
“I shook his hand and he said ‘I heard you’ve got a bit of bad news’ and I said, ‘ach I wouldn’t worry too much about it’.
“He said, ‘where is it, the prostate?’ and I said, ‘nah, the pancreas, and he said, ‘Jesus, that’s worse still’. I just laughed, he was saying what everyone was thinking.”
He continued: “The amount of people who came through the door in those first two or three weeks was unbelievable. I always said to people, I don’t want any pity or sympathy because there’s people in far, far worse situations than me – I saw that in Altnagelvin and you see ads of the children’s ward in Belfast. It’d break your heart.
“For adults it’s bad enough, and chemo drags you to the total depths, but at least I was able to process what I was going through.”
It was decided that Grugan would undertake chemotherapy. While he doesn’t want to delve into the intricacies of his treatment – he says that no two cancer sufferers react in the same way – it was physically and psychologically a punishing experience.
“Before my treatment, a couple of people gave me advice about their experiences, and I thought I don’t want to hear this because it would scare the life out of you.
“For me, I received chemo once every three weeks – the first time it was through a drip lasting eight or nine hours, and after that it was around an hour and-a-half or two hours.
“The first week after a bout of chemo wasn’t too bad, but after that your immune system shut down and you couldn’t be in contact with anyone. This is my third year of lockdowns and the other lockdowns have been easy by comparison.
“And as it went on, it always seemed to get worse so you were in dire straits at times and anyone who had cancer will understand where I’m coming from.”
Grugan says that his family were exceptionally brave in the circumstances – and that he also had outside support that allowed him to forget about the ‘big C’ for an hour or two.
“From the word go, Mary and the two boys have been absolutely fantastic. Mary has a high pressure job – she’s a teaching principal which I always think is the toughest job in teaching, and she was able to keep the school running throughout. She was totally positive even when I rang her and said I was going to get diagnosed.
“Right away she said it would be alright, and I suppose I was the man of the house and she took over that role for five or six months.
“Another thing I did is surround myself with positive and strong characters. We didn’t lay down as a family, and every night I could I walked with the likes of Liam Morris, Noel McGinn, Terry McCann, Eugene Bradley, Seamus Hannigan, John McGoldrick and Brian Campbell.
“They’re great GAA men and great big characters. I was stubborn and bullish and there were nights I walked with them where I shouldn’t have, but it was a great help to me.
“There was no self-pity on my part, we had good conversations and arguments and football and teaching and things like that.”
Grugan went into remission into May 2019, but he compares it to the feeling of winning a Tyrone Senior Championship: sheer unadulterated elation tempered by the nagging realisation that the following season – in Tyrone at least – tends to be a rather chastening experience.
He knows from family experience that there’s always a chance that the cancer may return – and what’s more, chemotherapy, which is, after all, the administering of cell-ravaging poisonous drugs, had a hugely deleterious effect on his strength and fitness.
“I’m really lucky that Conan’s a physio and Aaron has a degree in strength and conditioning, as I was a shadow of my former self when I went into remission.
“They advised I get into yoga or pilates, so I did that for a couple of months in Rosewood with Brian and Marcella Campbell.
“I also went back to the gym in August. I was in a class of six – me and five women – and we were squatting with barbells on our backs. They were using weighted barbells, but I was just using the barbell and as a proud sportsman I was totally disgusted and annoyed with myself.
“I was in desperate shape, and if someone came to the house the next day and wanted to cut my legs off with a chainsaw I wouldn’t have stopped them. I was in massive pain.
“Previously I had full intentions of going back to work at the end of the month, but I rang the principal, Katrina McGettigan, and told her I was in massive bother both physically and mentally.
“Thankfully she was brilliant about it, and for the next six months I attended yoga, pilates and stretching sessions under Aidan McCarron in the leisure centre. I was also going to Source twice a week and I know people might laugh but I was mad to get the weight back on.”
The Primary Six teacher made those tentative first steps back to teaching early in January 2020, eight months after he was told he was in remission. It’s a massive part of his life – a calling as much as a job – so retirement was never an option.
“Progression was minimal but I went back to St Conor’s on a phased return. I was 55, and I suppose I had a serious health issue and most people thought I should retire, but I was stubborn and didn’t want cancer to define or retire me. I still felt I had something to offer as a teacher, and I love seeing children achieve and progress.
“Initially it was just one day a week and it took the rest of the week to recover, but it was great to be back. The children are great – they have no baggage and never asked any questions. You work hard but want to have a bit of craic with them as well.”
While he’s made commendable progress on the fitness front, he suffers from peripheral neuropathy, so even elementary day-to-day tasks are varying degrees of challenging.
“Chemo has left a few parting gifts and people who have had cancer will know what I’m talking about.
“I’m left with a thing called peripheral neuropathy – it causes cramps, burning sensations, weaknesses in the hands, feet and legs, it affects your balance and co-ordination and it causes extreme fatigue.
“My body goes into a sort of lockdown every five weeks or so, and for me it lasts about 48 hours and then I’m able to get up and running again.
“I also suffer from a lack of sleep, and I wear gloves even during the summer, especially on my left hand which the ones at school tease me about.
“I try to walk but it’s not long before my feet are cramping and that gives me a limp.
“I also have problems with fine motor skills, even things you take for granted like using a pen, opening a bottle cap, or lacing your shoes.
“I also know people think I’m clumsy anyway but I regularly drop cups, plates and glasses, and I need someone to drive if I’m going any more than four or five miles because my hands and feet get that sore.
“My concentration levels are also greatly reduced – on numerous occasions I’ve got to the check-out when out shopping and realised I’ve no wallet with me, so I end up having to go home to get it. It’s embarrassing but I try to laugh it off.
“I’m lucky Conan and Aaron have designed a personal programme for me to try to improve my conditioning and fine motor skills, and they’ve even got wee drills aimed at improving my co-ordination. It’s February 2021 now and I have it in my head that by June or July of 2022 I’ll be in some sort of shape.”
Grugan is also indebted to local soccer club Strathroy Harps, Omagh, St Enda’s and the wider GAA family for their help throughout his recovery, and he also wished to stress the support he got from Fintona, where he’s from originally.
“Omagh, St Enda’s have been absolutely brilliant, I still wanted to keep going to matches and they really looked after me. Paul Breen was the chairman initially, now it’s Conor Sally and they never forgot me.
“The GAA community as a whole has been fantastic. One night I was sitting at home and I got a text message from a strange number saying he’d heard from an old mutual friend Damien O’Hagan that I was in treatment.
“I read down further and I realised Bernard Flynn, the Meath great, had sent me the message and we’ve been texting back and forth since, just the odd text asking how it’s going. I thought it was brilliant of Damien to organise that – we had clashes on the sideline when I managed Omagh but we’ve remained great friends.
“It was also important to me to keep my eye in with Tyrone GAA. Last year, Eugene McConnell invited me to be part of the Tyrone TV’s team to provide commentary and analysis, and it was a brilliant experience.
“I know I made a few mistakes on air but it was just great to be part of club championship days and I relished every match I went to. I can’t thank Eugene enough for that.”
In parting, we could trot out a cliché about the grand meaning of it all, but it seems more fitting to leave with a piece of practical advice proffered by Grugan.
“It’s so important to get yourself into shape and don’t say that you don’t have the time – everyone has the time, even if it’s just walking or pilates, and there are so many gyms out there. I’ve always prided myself in being in good shape and when I was sick it was still like being hit by a bus.
“The other thing I would say is to go and get yourself checked if there’s something wrong – I should have gone to the hospital about six or seven months before I actually did. I’m lucky to be here to tell the tale so please don’t leave it as long as I did.”