CANCER has been lifechanging for Derrick Evans as he has battled the illness for 14 years.
Despite the challenges and dark period – Derrick is currently fighting it for a fifth time – the 45-year-old founder of Stalybridge-based Cancer Warriors, he believes it has enhanced his life.
“I had to get cancer to be on this journey,” explained Derrick who pointed out he would not have met partner Cassy but for the disease.
“Before I had cancer, I was a heavy drinker and smoker, and life was all about me.
“It has changed me as a person. I am a better dad, and I am happier today giving rather than receiving.”
And it was this lightbulb moment that prompted Derrick to change his life and launch Derk’s Army 200708447, which later evolved to become Cancer Warriors, in March 2011 to give something back to those who had helped him.
The number 200708447 denotes the year and month he was diagnosed with cancer and the last three digits denotes he was the 447th person diagnosed that month.
That was 10 years ago and a way for Mossley-based Derrick, once a professional photographer, to say thank you by fundraising for The Christie and Macmillan Cancer Support.
That evolved into Cancer Warriors which became a registered charity in March 2016 while two years later it opened its current base on Melbourne Street.
And as Warriors begins its fourth year with a high street presence, Derrick still believes there is work to be done as he dreams of establishing a larger base, a one-stop shop to assist not only cancer victims but their families.
Cancer Warriors has 12 volunteers, five of which have had the illness and the remainder have also been touched by it as they have lost family members.
Derrick explained: “The basic difference is that we are all volunteers and not clinically trained.
“We understand there is a greater need, not only for the patient, but for relatives and friends who also need support.
“When I was diagnosed, my dad supported me, but no-one was there to support him. It is the stone in the pool, the ripple effect as it spreads.”
Derrick explained there are other cancer organisations, but they do not deal with families.
He said: “When I was first diagnosed I was invited to Willow Wood but, despite the great work they do, I didn’t want to spend time there.
“I was battling cancer and the hospice reminded me of the friends I lost to cancer. That is something others feel the same about.
“We are in a non-clinical and normal environment which works when they people come in for a chat.”
Derrick added many cancer patients often conceal emotions as they try to protect loved ones around them.
“It is nice for them to offload things and we often find it is a great relief and weight off their shoulders. Often men find it hardest to talk,” he said.
“We have either had cancer or lost wives, husbands, sons and daughters so we have empathy as we have been on the same journey as them.”
Derrick, who freely admitted he has mental issues emanating from battling cancer for so long, said victims can appreciate the emptions – initial shock and anger to acceptance and fear of the journey they are embarking on.
“We have been there and have the t-shirt, cuddly toy and key ring,” he said.
Derrick added the feedback received makes him and his colleagues is hugely enriching.
“When people talk about the amazing service we provide and they could not have got through it without us, that makes me proud,” he said.
Derrick also pointed out that some people have attended Cancer Warriors after being recommended to do so by their doctor which again is great to have the seal of approval from medics.
As Cancer Warriors embarks on its second decade, Derrick said the immediate aim is to embark on a huge publicity drive.
“We are a free service and some people still don’t know we are here and go through mental torment when we can help them,” he said.
Cancer Warriors, whose hashtags are #no-one should face cancer along and #working together, have helped more than 400 people in the time their Melbourne Street shop has been open.
Derrick’s vision remains larger premises so Warriors can become a ‘one-stop shop’ for cancer patients and families to fill the voids and lack of support he has experienced on his own emotional journey.
He is currently battling cancer for a fifth time but has also had a heart attack, double heart by-pass and valve replacement, pneumonia twice and stem cell transplant which was only a partial success.
Derrick said: “I was given eight weeks to live, and that was two years ago.
“I am sure there is a purpose for me to be kept on Earth to fulfil.”
Derrick admitted he finds in hard to reconcile he has had cancer five times and is still alive while others have it once and died which makes him live with survivor’s guilt.
He said: “I have had serious mental health problems and still do. I have had cancer for such a long time. It is not like having flu and you are back on your feet in a couple of weeks.
“I have come to terms with death and am able to reflect on it. When you know you only have a limited time left, you don’t take every day as a given.
“You have got to make the most of every day.”
Derrick added he would not have come through his journey without the support of family and friends, The Christie and Wythenshawe Hospital.
He said: “Without the dedication of the medical staff at both hospitals and even the cleaners who have a chat with you, I would not be here.
“I am lucky to have had the support of good people who have got me to where I am today. And a big thank you to them all.”
Derrick, who ignored a cancerous lump on his neck for two years, implores others not to do likewise, especially as this time when many are frightened to go to doctors because of Covid-19.
He said: “It is a time-bomb and I know people who are on their death beds because of Covid.
“If you find anything unusual, go to you doctor and don’t be scared.
“I left the lump in my neck, my initial cancer, two years. If I can gone straightaway as soon as I found it, I would probably not be in the position I find myself today.”