Joe Stays Positive And Takes His Terminal Illness One Day At A Time

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Joe Flynn

Joe Flynn at his home in Rahoonane with his wife Breda, daughter Bernie and grand-daughter Caitlin. Photo by Dermot Crean

When Joe Flynn was told by doctors in August that he didn’t have long to live, his attitude was the same as always: keep positive and keep fighting. We met him and his family at his Rahoonane home and saw that he has so much to keep fighting for…

LATER this month, Joe Flynn will walk his daughter Joanne down the aisle and then enjoy the wedding reception at Ballyroe Heights Hotel.

It will come just a couple of weeks after Joe accompanies his pregnant daughter, Bernie, for the scan on her second child, where doctors will reveal whether it’s a boy or a girl.

These will be special moments for Joe and his wife Breda, and after the ordeal of the past year they certainly deserve them.

The 58 year old, popular sign writer is well-known in town and beyond for his upbeat nature, but that has been severely tested over the past couple of years.

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A great sportsman all his life, the Killorglin native had a cruciate ligament operation on his knee back in 2012, but it snapped after the first operation and he had to get it redone. Then he contracted septicaemia on the wound and  had about eight to ten operations on it.

In 2013 he had trouble with the leg, but it turned out to be related to damaged vertebrae in his back which required an operation, performed by surgeons through his neck.

“That was ok for a while, but then I started having trouble eating and I thought it was just scar tissue stuck in my throat from the operation,” said Joe.

The problem got worse and got to the point where Joe was choking on his food. His doctor sent him for scans and to Joe’s shock it turned out to be oesophagus cancer and he required surgery.

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“I had the operation in October 2014 and I had 23 days of chemotherapy before it, going up and down to Cork,” said Joe, who started using the services of the Kerry Cork Health Link Bus.

“I’m a sign writer and the man behind the Kerry Cork Health Link Bus at the time, Tim Corkery, asked me to do the sign on the bus for him a while back. I did it for free and said to Tim ‘you’d never know I might need it someday’. And there I was on the bus.”

“I had the operation and I was 11 hours on the table. I was home after six days and they thought I was a freak of nature I was so good. But because they found a few spots on my lymph nodes afterwards, I had to have 100 days of chemo, which was horrendous. I went from 15 stone 7  to 10 stone 7.”

By April of this year, Joe was clear of cancer for 10 weeks and everything was going grand.

“Then about eight weeks after that, I felt a lump in my stomach and I thought I was after pulling a muscle, because I’m always working or doing something,” he said.

“But it wasn’t that. The cancer was back. It was back in my stomach and the doctors gave me between three and five and a half months to live.”

“But that’s only a number in my estimation. I’m very good in my own head.”

This positivity has been his trademark from the start of his ordeal. Joe has kept his upbeat nature and used his personality to cheer up the other patients.

“The very first day I went to Cork for chemotherapy, I went into this room with people who were sick receiving the treatment. I said to myself ‘we can do this two ways Joe; mingle in with them and be another sick person, or try to make things happier for people’. So I picked up my paper and said to the lads there, in a serious tone; ‘Jaysus, that was desperate about the lad who invented the hokey-cokey. It says here he died a few days ago.’

‘What?’ said one of the lads.

“Yeah, they had awful problems with the coffin at the funeral though. When they put his left leg in, the right leg came out.”

And so it went on that every time Joe was up in CUH, people would hear a laugh coming from Room 4 where he and the other patients were receiving treatment.

After Joe received the news his cancer was terminal, he has tried new forms of treatment.

“I went on alternative chemotherapy, which was tough enough so I stopped. The chemo might give me a bit of extra time, but what quality of life will that give me? Will the lasting memory my family have of me is being strapped to a machine over in palliative care? I’d prefer to be working out the back of the house here and then suddenly be gone.

He is finding one treatment to be of great use though.

“I got on to an alternative oncologist in Dublin and he’s sending me fish oils and omega 3 and I’m after perking up and gaining half a stone within the last two or three weeks.

I’m buzzing. I’m only back after walking the dog and I was painting the house today. I was out for drinks last night with Breda and had a great time,” he said.

His daughter Bernie is amazed at her dad’s lust for life.

“It’s like dad says, you can give up  or you can move on and fight as much as you can,” she said, but said it’s been a rough time for all of them.

“He’s lost friends to cancer a long the way too from when he was having treatment. We’ve been to their funerals. It’s hard for us because we’ve been at the funerals  and we know we’re going to face that as well,” she said.

“We’re humbled that dad’s helping us through, when we should be helping him through it. We’ve done funeral arrangements, which is a horrible thing to go through. But it’s also great because we know we will do it exactly how he wants it,” she said.

Joe has a somewhat unorthodox plan for the funeral when the time comes, especially when it comes to what he’ll be wearing.

“I have a good suit upstairs that I paid €350 for and there’s no way I’m going to waste that. I’m going to give it to someone that’ll wear it. So I have a “What A Plonker” T-Shirt from Only Fools And Horses and I’ll be buried in that and a pair of jeans that I bought for a tenner!” he said.

“I don’t know any person who came out of a funeral and said ‘Jesus lads he looked bad in the coffin alright…the suit was lovely though!’ It’s washed and ready inside the wardrobe. I’ve the music picked, the songs I like. I wrote the speech for Bernie, getting my soccer and darts career facts right!”

As Bernie says: “He might not beat cancer but he’s not letting cancer break him. His spirit is exactly the same. The way we’re going about it as a family is working for us. Everything dad is doing at the moment is working, but it mightn’t suit everyone going through the same thing.”

Joe is philosophical about the diagnosis and says, in a way, has been more fortunate than many.

“Not everyone gets a chance to say goodbye to people who were good to them, to see their grandchild, to see their daughters grow up and get married. Bernie is due her second child in March. If I was around for that I’d be over the moon. But the next best thing is Bernie is taking me to the scan next week and I’ll know the sex of the baby before anyone.”

“Mentally I’m good, but it took me a long time to accept it. There were times we got up at four o’clock in the morning and I thought “what’s the story Breda? What have I done to deserve this? We’d be crying, then laughing.”

Joe keeps himself as busy as possible; sign writing, painting, walking the dog and playing with his grandchild Caitlin whom he dotes on.

And he’s really looking forward to Joanne’s wedding…

“I want to be in good shape for that because people will be looking at me that day and if I’m looking good it’ll relax people. I’ve only two daughters and I want to make sure their days are as special as possible.”

As time goes by he wonders about how the illness will progress.

“I wake up every morning and ask myself if I feel any different today. Is this the day I die?  Then I get a bit of energy and take my medication and I’m off painting. I have a to-do list, like writing a sign for Caitlin to remember me by, to spend time with her so she’ll remember me when I’m gone.”

November is men’s health awareness month and Joe is encouraging men to get checked out if they feel anything is wrong.

“Men are terrible for going to the doctor, “as sure I’m grand” they say. You never ever think cancer will come to you. You think someone else has that. I’m a fella that worked 24/7, I didn’t have time to get sick. Then when you get it, you look at the stats and see one in three people will get cancer.”

“If somebody has a problem, no matter how minute they think it is, get it checked. Go to the GP. If you bought a car you’d get it serviced regularly, but we don’t do it to ourselves.”

For anyone who is going through a similar situation Joe says the best thing is to keep busy.

“Stay positive and don’t listen to any negative people. Do as much as you can. Ok, you won’t have the energy levels you normally had, but do enough to keep your mind active and keep yourself sane. I’m not waiting for this thing to happen. It will come eventually, but it comes to everyone.”


  1. Joe was as tough as nails on a pitch and he is still carrying that toughness with him. I played many times against him for Killarney Celtic. A true gent, good on you Joe.

  2. Thinking of you joe and Breda xxx

  3. Joyce O'Connor says:

    You are so brave. 8 hope u get to see u new grandchild u deserve it. Best of luck

  4. lisa marie finn says:

    I’m in tear’s after reading that your such an inspiration and the most amazing man ever and am so happy to know and have u in my life when i was younger have some lovely memorys. I’m sooo sorry joe u had to go true so much and breda and girl’s too i thing of ye everyday and light a candle right next to my dad’s one his watching over u i hope u know i just know he is. I will be praying for ye all and u will get your wishes to see joanne married and joe u always look your best i would’nt worry about that u keep doing what your doing and stay strong. <3 <3 :-*

  5. So very sorry to hear the news about Joe, only heard it from my daughter today and could’nt believe it. So sorry for Breda and family also, but it is great that he is so positive and still doing the things he like’s to do. We will keep him and family in our prayers. I’m one of the lucky one’s I suppose as I had cancer in 2002 and all went well thank God.
    God bless you Joe and Family.

  6. God bless you Joe and family.

  7. joe , listened to you today on the radio, unbelievable brave man ,
    please visit St Johns Well in Dunsany Meath , Please give it a try
    And keep Fighting,
    God Bless you

  8. Praying for you and your family Joe here in the U.S.A.