James: “Our stay gave us the opportunity to recharge after a very difficult few months”

James Small works as an Inspecting Officer with West Sussex FRS but had only been in the job a few weeks when he was diagnosed with cancer. We’ve since offered him and his family support.

For James Small, seeing his son and his teammates wearing their signature bright yellow football kit – emblazoned with our ‘in aid of’ logo across the back – holds a particularly special meaning.

He organised for the kits to be made himself, while asking his community to donate what they could to us in return, all as a thank you for the support he and his family have received.

James, 37, was diagnosed with cancer in 2023, just weeks into a new role as Inspecting Officer with West Sussex FRS. It led to months off work as he underwent surgery and an intense round of chemo, before leading to another major health scare… this time sepsis.

During his recovery, James faced not only physical health challenges, but a big impact on his mental wellbeing too. He says a rest and recharge stay with us at Harcombe House couldn’t have come at a better time.

“In April 2023 I found a lump,” says James. “It was the week before I started my new role in West Sussex FRS.

“It was actually the fact I was starting this job that made me go to the doctors, I wanted to make sure everything was fine before I started. They ran a fair few tests and it was later diagnosed as cancer. It’s the word you never want to hear, it’s really scary.

“I had to endure nine intense weeks of chemo as well as surgery, which meant 12 weeks off work while very new into the role.

“The chemo massively affected me. Everything I did was an effort, I had a lot of nausea, fatigue, and of course I lost my hair.”

After nine weeks of intense chemo, James began to focus on the end and hoped his road to recovery was close. Sadly, shortly after his last round, he was diagnosed with sepsis.

“I’d just had my final round of chemo and remember feeling particularly ill that night,” says James. “I initially thought it was side effects of the chemo, but it was worse than I’d had before. My partner ended up calling an ambulance.

“It led to me spending four nights in hospital while they got it under control. But once I was home, the psychological effects kicked in.

“I’d thought it was uphill for me from the last chemo session, but back down I’d gone. Leaving the house became a huge effort for me.”

James says he began avoiding going out, for fear of having to explain what was happening to friends and neighbours. He was also concerned about being too far from home after the side effects he’d experienced from the chemo only weeks before.

“One of the biggest things was my kids,” he says. “I had tried to keep it all from them, but when my hair started falling out I had to tell my eldest son, and he struggled quite a bit with that.

“I also thought going to football with no hair was going to start questions, which I think played on my mind a lot. It caused a lot of anxiety, overthinking it.”

James adds: “That was all until the football season started. My team play just around the corner and my partner had just passed her driving test, so she was able to take me and I had the reassurance that I could jump back in the car if I needed to.

“The urge to get back to football was enough to drag me out the house. Being back on the touchline was like the reset button being pressed.”

James was later given the all clear following his cancer battle, but the mental impacts of what he’d been through remained – and that’s what prompted him to get in touch with us again.

We offered James and his family a week’s stay at Harcombe House, our centre in Devon, on a rest and recharge break.

“It really did give us the opportunity to recharge,” says James. “We loved it. Because I’d missed the kids’ summer holidays, it was a chance for us to all switch off and spend some quality time together.

“My youngest son still doesn’t really know what’s happened, but my eldest is still struggling with it all a bit now so having some time away with us seemed to really help. He’s been a lot more open with us since, we’ve got a different kind of bond now I think, it’s great.”

As a way of saying thank you, James donated new training shirts to his son’s football team, with our ‘in aid of’ logo on the back. In return, he asked all the parents and supporters in the community to donate what they could to us.

He’s since raised over £1,100.

“I paid for the original kits, then all donations go directly to the Charity from parents and supporters,” explains James. “It’s my small way of saying thank you.

“I’d also take the opportunity to drop in a reminder that, if you think there is something wrong, get yourselves checked.”

To donate to James’ fundraiser, click here.

If you feel you’d benefit from our health and wellbeing support, you can call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or visit the ‘Access Support’ tab in My Fire Fighters Charity.

And remember – if you’re feeling suicidal, you can call our Crisis Line 24 hours a day on 0300 373 0896.