Suicide prevention campaigner shares cancer battle

The founder of R U OK?, Gavin Larkin, has cancer and only weeks to live. But the man behind the national day of action to prevent suicide took a positive approach to his illness and has been inspiring others.

Mr Larkin was the ultimate alpha male. He was a highly successful advertising executive with a seemingly perfect life except, as he says himself, he was a bit of a “”prick””.

“I am no saint. I have made all the great mistakes that human beings make and I have been a prick to some people throughout my life,” he told ABC1’s Australian Story.

Mr Larkin was also struggling with suicidal thoughts and decided he needed to change his life.

Three years ago he used his high-profile contacts to single-handedly create a national day of awareness called R U OK? Day.

The aim was to combat depression and suicide by encouraging people to check on the welfare of friends, colleagues and family. Mr Larkin was 26 when he lost his father to depression and suicide.

Within nine months, R U OK? Day had achieved levels of awareness about depression and suicide prevention that other organisations had failed to reach over the course of decades.

“It was a terrific advertising campaign. Within nine months he had achieved what would have taken the mental health sector nine years to achieve,” said Barbara Hocking, chief executive of mental health charity SANE.

But not long after the launch, Mr Larkin himself was anything but OK.

The then 41-year-old was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma and given a 50 per cent chance of survival.

“February 16, 2010 and my world just collapsed. It was like getting hit by a truck because the fear is intense,” Mr Larkin said.

Just a few weeks later, Mr Larkin’s then 11-year-old son Gus was told he had a brain tumour.

“We were all reeling by this stage. You just finish crying and pulling yourself together over Gavin and then you get the news that this beautiful boy is ill too,” said Mr Larkin’s mother, Maureen Vaughan.

Mr Larkin enlisted the help of neurosurgeon Charlie Teo, who operated on Gus and his condition is now stable.

In the past 18 months, the pair has dealt with their cancer in remarkable ways. Mr Larkin has found his young son’s attitude a source of strength and guidance.

“He hasn’t played the victim at all. He’s been sensational. He hasn’t ever said ‘Why me?’ – not once – and his bravery and that level of acceptance have been a real inspiration for his mum and me,” Mr Larkin said.

“”If your 12-year-old son can be such a stud about it and do it so peacefully and so graciously and like such a gentleman, then you can do it too.

“Que sera is Gus’s attitude. I’ve done radiation and I’m having a year of chemo once every six weeks and I’m on the end of my second round, so still got a while to go.”

Dr Teo has been amazed by Mr Larkin’s response to Gus’s illness.

“It’s hard enough having a child who’s sick and to have your own illness and to selflessly put your own illness on the backburner while you concentrate on your child, I mean, that takes an amazing sort of emotional fortitude and selflessness,” he said.

While others would have faltered, Mr Larkin continued to lead R U OK? Day from his hospital bed, even checking himself out to attend the second-year launch of the event last October.

“I got out of hospital the day before and showed up, but, you know, I was wearing a yellow T-shirt and I think I was yellower than the T-shirt. It was pretty grim,” Mr Larkin said.

R U OK? Day has become a phenomenon. Within two years it has achieved 30 per cent awareness and last year one in 10 adults asked a loved one ‘Are you OK?’ in an effort to reduce the suicide toll.

But there has been no good news for Mr Larkin.

Despite having a bone marrow transplant in March, his lymphoma has not been cured and Mr Larkin is now receiving palliative care at his Sydney home.

In July he was given only weeks to live, but Mr Larkin was determined to be around for the third year of R U OK? Day on September 15 and to see it continue well into the future.

“You know there’s a ton of things I’m not proud of in my life. [But] I’m really proud of R U OK? Day. And I know the kids are too and you know I remember how proud I was of my father. It is something that they’ll be proud of forever.”