You may know actor Jamie; most recently he has played Nigel Berbrooke in Bridgerton and Ciaran in Derry Girls.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007.
I was 30 and playing Roy Keane in the musical comedy, I, Keano in Dublin. Acting on stage can be physically demanding, with seven or eight performance a week, so I had been exercising beforehand and was losing weight in preparation for my role in the show.
I noticed a painless lump on my collarbone, which felt rubbery, so went to see my GP. He thought it was an infection and that the lump was an inflamed node. However, a few weeks passed and it was still rubbing and wasn’t getting any smaller, so my GP referred me for a chest X-ray. This revealed a shadow on my chest; that was the start of numerous tests.
It was the day after the opening night of I, Keano that I had an MRI scan and a biopsy taken from the inflamed node on my neck. I was diagnosed with classic Hodgkin lymphoma, stage 2B (the B indicates that I had symptoms). Night sweats had just started, I had the lump, I had lost weight and was itching, but didn’t think too much about it. The symptoms were there, but most of them I could explain away.
After diagnosis I continued working, as it would be a few weeks before I started treatment. Acting was something I held on to. I was reading up about Hodgkin lymphoma and it all sounded scary, so getting lost in the show for a few hours each evening was brilliant. The lymphoma wasn’t making me feel ill, although I did feel ill later – because of the treatment. Thinking about it, I’d probably had the Hodgkin lymphoma for some time; certainly before I started working on the show.
I was upfront with cast about the diagnosis and everyone was worried and sympathetic. Dark humour broke the ice and helped us through, with the suggestion that I, Keano should be changed to I, Chemo!
I had six rounds of ABVD chemotherapy over six months. Back in 2007, antiemetics weren’t as effective as they are now, so it was a bit of a rough ride. It made me very sick. I've had to do all sorts of things to my hair when acting, so losing it wasn't a problem.
Although I normally live in London, I, Keono was on in Dublin. Therefore I was diagnosed and treated at home in Ireland. It made such a difference to be with my family and have my mum and grandma really looking after me.
My acting work stopped, which was a real blow.
As soon as treatment started, I had to stop the tour of I, Keano. I had two more plays lined up, but I couldn’t be in them, and I remember feeling devastated that they were going ahead without me. But then my haematologist told me that my bone marrow biopsy was clear, and everything was put into stark perspective. My health was what really mattered at that time and although I was disappointed that my acting work stopped, I knew there would be more plays in the future.
At the end of 2007 I went into remission, and was followed-up with regular check-ups. In the summer of 2009, a CAT scan revealed the lymphoma was back.
By now I was 32 and this felt such a blow. My haematologist explained that they planned to do an autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT) using my own stem cells, with the aim of curing my lymphoma. Those words were heartening.
Once again, it all happened in the midst of working. This time I was in a play at the National Theatre, London, and also had a small part in the film Robin Hood which was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Russell Crowe. I was due to start treatment, so my agent spoke to the producers explaining I would need to pull out as they couldn’t guarantee I would be well enough. I had accepted the effect on my work this time, but was shocked to hear that they still wanted me to be involved in Robin Hood. Apparently, Ridley Scott had heard about my diagnosis and said that if I was well enough, he wanted to have me on set. It was an amazing gesture, given I had a small part, but he wanted to help someone in a bad situation. It was a huge boost at the time.
I was having ICE chemotherapy before harvesting my cells for the ASCT. I had told my treating team about the possibility of still being in Robin Hood and they planned my treatment so that I was at my best when my part was due to be filmed. It was such a big thing everyone was doing for me, but they said they were delighted to be able to make this happen. A year later, it was a thrill to take my grandma to see the film.
The transplant was fine. It was after that I got sicker.
The transplant itself was fine - almost a non-event after everything else - it was after the transplant that I got sicker.
I recovered more quickly than I thought and after three weeks, they were talking about sending me home. I felt nervous about leaving the hospital environment, where I had been in isolation with people gowned up to protect me from germs. Now I was heading home to be amongst people again. In reality, it was once I had got home that the recovery started. The illness never made me sick, but the treatment did. It was tough but really worth it, especially looking back 12 years later.
When you are small and ill you think you will never be better again. Even with something like a cold you forget within a few days what it felt like to be well. Because it was an extended period of recovery it was tricky. Will I be the same? Will I be able to do the things I did before?
I tried to run before I could walk, but bit by bit things built up again. I love what I do, but this illness stopped me doing what I love doing, as well as other things in life. For me it was all about getting back to where I was. I got to appreciate it more.
Playing a hittable baddy in Bridgerton has been great fun.
When I got the script for Bridgertont it looked like a great project, but thought I would be unlikely to get the part as they were looking for an Englishman, while I am Irish and sound distinctly Irish. However, I sent in a tape and got the offer to play Nigel Berbrooke, who’s like the villain in the first two episodes.
The scale of the costume fitting warehouse made it clear that this was going to be a major production, and the amazing locations around England were fantastic. Being in Bridgerton was amazing and great fun - and I have enjoyed all the furore that it has caused.
Listen to Jamie's story on our podcast.