‘I stared death in the face’: NI theatre star fulfils dream a year after stage four cancer diagnosis

Talented stage star appearing in Romeo and Juliet and getting married, but 12 months ago he was staring death in the face

This time 12 months ago, Finnian Garbutt was staring death in the face as he underwent major surgery for advanced skin cancer.

Exactly one year to the day after a life-saving, 11-hour operation, the 25-year-old Co Antrim man’s dreams came true when he stepped onto the stage of a packed Lyric Theatre in Belfast to play Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.

“I had the worst possible start to 2022, but this year has had the best start ever so far,” Finnian told Sunday Life.

“February 8 was the day I went into surgery last year. This year, February 8 was press night for the play.

“I am not very sentimental, but it was very emotional being there and performing to a sold-out auditorium when a year earlier I thought I might not be alive. It was a big moment.”

Finnian after surgery

The 25-year-old, who grew up in Bangor but now lives in Whitehead with his fiancee, Louise Agnew, had dreamed of performing at the Lyric since he decided as a young teenager to pursue a career in acting.

It was a dream he was convinced he would never realise after he was given a terrifying cancer diagnosis in December 2021.

He had noticed a mole on his scalp in the summer of that year. By the time he was diagnosed with melanoma, it had spread to his neck and lymphnodes. The prognosis was frightening.

“It was near stage four — the cancer was in a number of lymphnodes in my neck,” Finnian recalled.

“It’s hard to describe what it is like to be told that. You just go into flight-or-fight mode and forget about your life and your future.

“I didn’t know one person with cancer, and I remember thinking, ‘How does someone with cancer die? Do you just drop dead?’.

“I was really worried about telling the people I loved. It was life-changing, and I could deal with that, but letting my family know was very difficult.”

Surgery was Finnian’s only hope, but he faced a complex procedure.

“I had never been in surgery before and was really intimidated by that,” he said.

“It was such a sensitive area where they had to operate, but I had a great team of medical staff looking after me.

“It wasn’t smooth sailing as they were operating close to so many nerves and veins.”

Fortunately, the surgery was a success. Since melanoma does not respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, Finnian is one of the first people to undergo a new form of treatment developed specifically for skin cancer.

Finnian (left) playing Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet

He explained: “They have changed how oncology works for melanoma with this new medication.

“There is a good chance of me living a good life, but it is a very modern treatment, which is scary because they don’t have the statistics for what it is like for patients 10 years down the line.

“So far, it is keeping things stable for me, but there are side effects which can be difficult to manage.

“It affects my eyesight and my energy levels, but thankfully, because it is very modern, I haven’t lost my hair.

“If I don’t take the tablet, there is a 50% chance the cancer will come back within 16 months, but with the tablets, that is cut by another 10 or 20%.

“It is like the flip of a coin. There is a chance it might never come back and also a fairly significant chance it will in the future.

“I take every good bit of news I can. At the minute, I am doing good and there is no evidence of disease.

“Life is never going to be the same, but it’s not all negative. It has really taught me a lot of stuff about how important things are and to not take anything for granted.

“I used to be petrified going on stage, even though it was something I wanted to do. Now I don’t feel nervous, I just go on and enjoy myself.

“I don’t have that fear anymore, and that definitely helps.”

Finnian and fiancee Louise Agnew© Stephen Hamilton

As well as getting his acting career on track, Finnian proposed to long-term girlfriend Louise (26) last October, with the happy couple expecting to tie the knot next spring.

Being on stage and doing what he loves most is something which just a few months ago Finnian thought might never happen again, never mind achieving his ambition of performing at the Lyric.

He was just 14 when he fell in love with acting and decided he wanted to make it his career.

“The drama department in Bangor Grammar school was so inspiring,” Finnian said.

“They were bringing me to see plays, which is something I had never done before, and I remember being in the Lyric as a schoolboy, the feeling I had after the play and thinking, ‘Flip, I would love to be up there’, but it seemed so alien, just a dream.

“I started doing some summers schemes at the Lyric and then enrolled in the studio for young actors.”

Finnian studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. He went on to appear in London’s Coronet Theatre in Youth Without God and had a small part in the BBC’s Casualty.

After the pandemic closed theatres, he became a narrator for radio plays and audio books.

When the opportunity arose last year to audition for Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric, he jumped at the chance.

Finnian said: “When I was diagnosed with cancer, my dream of appearing on the main stage in the Lyric disappeared. I just didn’t think it would ever be possible. I didn’t think I would be alive.

“Now, being up there every night is an unbelievable feeling. Benvolio is a really nice character, the peacemaker of the whole play. As much as he tries to calm everyone and keep things running smoothly, it doesn’t work out well for him.

“I do get a lot of stage time and it’s really wonderful.”

You can catch Finnian on stage at the Lyric in Romeo and Juliet until March 5. For more information or to book tickets, visit https://lyrictheatre.co.uk/whats-on/romeo-juliet

Belfast Telegraph Life