community

The man living with leukaemia who's helping other LGBTQ people face down cancer

Stewart O'Callaghan is among the everyday LGBTQ heroes honoured at the Attitude Pride Awards 2022, in association with Magnum.

2022-07-28

Words: Kanune Morrissey; Photography: Markus Bidaux

“It was late 2016, over the Christmas period when I was diagnosed,” remembers Stewart O’Callaghan, founder and director of cancer support and advocacy charity Live Through This (LTT), of when they were told they have chronic myeloid leukaemia. “I was living in Germany at the time. I was a tattoo artist. It was a very different life.”

O’Callaghan was just 29 at the time. “I have an incurable type of cancer; quite a rare cancer to get this young,” they explain of the disease, which is more common in adults aged 60-65. O’Callaghan came back to England for treatment, “naively hoping that I would get the support I was looking for”. They didn’t immediately find it.

“Queer culture is my culture — I wanted to be able to be a queer person at the same time as being a person with cancer,” says O’Callaghan. “But I very quickly realised there wasn’t really any space, information, or resource to do that.”

This made O’Callaghan’s already challenging situation even harder. “I withdrew from support for quite a few years and suffered alone, I suppose, until I decided: ‘I can’t escape my health.’” This realisation sparked a vital decision. They thought, ‘Rather than trying to run away from the issue, maybe let’s run towards it and see if I can make any difference.’

O’Callaghan moved from Brighton to London to be closer to their treatment hospital, King’s College. (“The one that keeps me alive.”) Relocating resolved a complicated series of travelling and treatments. “I have to go and see the doctor every three months — we shouldn’t have to travel miles to gain the same level of care,” they say.

Motivated by personal experience, O’Callaghan decided to set up an organisation to support people with cancer in the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones. “On the positive side, the Macmillan team [supported me].

Specifically, Lindsay Farthing, [Cancer Patient Experience programme manager], who is a wonderful person. When I first went to her, I said: ‘I really want to try and build something, would you support me?’ She did, 100 percent. She opened doors and pushed from the back.”

Once O’Callaghan gained enough experience, they wanted to take the charity — the UK’s first LGBTQ+ cancer support and advocacy organisation — independent. “That was super important for the charity, to be absolutely led by and for [LGBTQ+s].”

O’Callaghan approached Farthing with their ambitions. “She let me have my wings and go. It shows someone respects what you’re trying to do, while trying to own the progress you’re making.”

The charity helps bridge a divide between LGBTQ+s and a world that’s historically been exclusive and misinformed. “To my knowledge, we’re the only charity expressly led by and for LGBTQ people with cancer,” O’Callaghan tells me.

“There are a couple of groups, though. You have Out with Prostate Cancer up in Manchester: a wonderful group. And you have Walnut. But again, they’re very prostate-specific.”

LTT provides all manner of cancer services for the entire community. “LTT supports in multiple different ways,” explains O’Callaghan. “I always describe it as three main pathways. We provide peer services and direct support. We teach clinicians and people like that how to actually treat us better. We create things like the gender-neutral chest-checking guidance or specific campaigns that include us.” (Examples include the My Cervix, My Service campaign, and the upcoming Best for My Chest campaign.)

The work of O’Callaghan and LTT doesn’t stop there. “Behind the scenes, we’re making sure treatment of us, as in [people living with] cancer, is also on the map when it comes to government policy, trying to make sure people understand us on a clinical level; we sit in the LGBT sector and raise issues of health in that space, and then we also sit in the health sector and raise LGBT issues on that side, the health and oncological side of it. I think they are very new to really taking on board minoritised people and how to support us. They need a lot of help and direction doing that.”

Through a great deal of hard work, LTT is changing and saving lives. This heroism is recognised, especially by those closest to the charity. “It astounds me when people come in, the things they share, the relief you see in their face when they get to finally just be honest about things. When they get to tell you how things have been, around people that just get it.”

O’Callaghan furthermore enthuses that “quite often, when someone’s a first timer, I’ll get an email a day or two later saying: ‘Thank you. This really gave me something that other groups just couldn’t.’”

Adds O’Callaghan, “Cancer is such a complicated thing, and we all bring our own personal lives and experiences into that. I’m always telling people to build a patchwork of support that works for you. Attend as many groups as you need — like a quilt that gives you comfort. I love seeing LTT being in people’s patchworks.”

O’Callaghan encourages readers to spread the word: “Tell your friends about us. It doesn’t have to be after a diagnosis of cancer that you know we’re here. People should know we’re here from the beginning.”

Despite being “a very small team” that’s only been around less than two years, LTT has received a Lead2030 award, and a GSK Grow award. Commenting on this recognition, O’Callaghan says, “I really appreciate it — in the sense that people take us seriously, especially in the health sector, because our charity campaigns on quite a strong view of improving patient experience.”

O’Callaghan is also ecstatic about their Attitude Pride Award: “When something like this comes through, I’m so grateful because it allows our community to know we’re here — it’s just magical.” O’Callaghan’s parting message? “If you do know anyone with cancer or if you have it, know that we’re here for you and you don’t have to go through it alone.” 

If you would like to help LTT by volunteering, collaborating, fundraising, or donating, connect via their website: livethroughthis.co.uk

The Attitude September/October issue is available to download and order in print now and will be on newsstands from Thursday 4 August.