28 Mar 2024

Ciaran and Denise’s journey to Dragons’ Den

“I’ve gotta admit going on Dragons’ Den I was scared – I’ve faced leukaemia but my stomach was in my throat!”  

Ciaran and Denise

Ciaran Byrne’s leukaemia developed at a time when his life couldn’t have been going better. In May 2018 he married Denise Kenny Byrne in a dream wedding in Rome. The software business owner was ‘knee-deep in work projects’, and Denise has just landed her dream PR role. They were so busy they delayed their honeymoon until January 2019, but just before they jetted off to South Africa and the Maldives, Ciaran started to feel unwell.   

“Heavy on my feet”

“I seemed to have constant bugs and infections, but nothing that I couldn’t dismiss as just things going round,” said Ciaran, age 44, who lives in Dublin. “Then I went away on a business trip and got on the scales in the hotel. I thought I’d been eating badly and not exercising and might have put on weight, but it showed I’d lost 7kg. I’d also got a horrible metallic taste in my mouth. And I was really fatigued. I would be walking to the shop close to my house at a leisurely pace and would think I could do with putting my feet up when I get back. My body felt so heavy on my feet.”  

After Ciaran developed a cough and swelling around his mouth, he went to the doctor. The GP said he needed a blood test but Ciaran asked to delay it until after his honeymoon.  

“One day when I was in the Maldives I said to Denise I’m going to shake off all this illness and get fit again, so I’m going for a run. I couldn’t make it more than a couple of feet. So on January 22nd 2019, two days after I returned from my honeymoon, I went to the medical centre. They listened carefully to everything I said, took a blood test, and said they’d get the results to me in a couple of weeks. I got back home, made a cup of tea and got back to work. Two hours later they rang me and I said I needed to go immediately to A&E.”  

“Let’s get on with it”

Ciaran Byrne in hospital

Ciaran rushed with Denise to Mater Misericordiae University Hospital. “I was taken straight to a private room. The consultant came in and said he would cut to the chase and was very sorry to tell me he thought I had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).  My dad died from cancer when I was 12. He said without prompt treatment I would be looking at a potential ‘life termination event’ in a few weeks. Denise heard that and we both broke down crying. I felt so lost, that sense of falling into the depths of despair, and so sad this was happening to my family again after what we went through with my dad.”  

Newly-wed Ciaran asked his consultant if he would be able to have children. Doctors arranged for his treatment to be delayed by a day so he could have a sperm sample frozen. “One minute I was having a cup of tea, next I’m being told I have cancer and am visiting a sperm bank! It was a whirlwind, but I just had a sense of ‘let’s get on with it’.”  

Ten days of chemotherapy started for Ciaran on January 25th 2019 and after his initial shock, he rediscovered his usually positive attitude and started to focus on what was to come. He was allowed home for a couple of days, then his second round of eight days of chemotherapy began. By the end of it, Ciaran was officially in remission. Doctors said he would need a stem cell transplant to prevent him relapsing, and tests on his five siblings and other family members revealed two of his brothers were perfect matches.   

Trying to understand AML

“It was incredibly lucky. The only time I read anything online about my diagnosis was when I found a science paper on AML. I didn’t fully understand it, but I thought it meant the outlook wasn’t good. Denise had gone home for some lunch and I got very upset. The consultant came in and found me in bed whereas he’d usually see my bed made and me up and about. He said ‘Ciaran don’t look at those papers. Why don’t you get up on your exercise bike?’. After he left I got the music on, got on the bike, the tears started flowing and I just went for it. I was doing press ups, sits ups and all sorts. I felt amazing. And there’s a life lesson. I never looked at those science papers again.”  

Ciaran was transferred to St James’s Hospital for his stem cell transplant on 23rd April 2019, his 40th birthday, the exact day that he vowed he would be out of the Mater hospital. It can take many weeks for white blood cell numbers to rise back to a normal level after a stem cell transplant, but Ciaran was home in just 15 days. And it was another significant date – 11th May, his first wedding anniversary.   

“I couldn’t get out of that room quick enough. I ran down to the car, jumped inside, said let’s go let’s go, and then broke down in floods of tears. When we got home I put on a U2 song at a volume that the whole of the UK would have heard and danced around the room.”  

Ciaran with Charlotte

 The next phase – repeated trips back to hospital and medication adjustments – Ciaran found to be challenging. He lived in constant fear of every blood test showing he had relapsed. But on 22nd January, he celebrated one year since his diagnosis with a parachute jump in Dubai! And soon there was another reason for celebration. After two rounds of IVF using Ciaran’s frozen sperm sample, the couple welcomed daughter Charlotte on April 12th 2023.   

The Head Plan

There was one more adventure waiting to start in Ciaran and Denise’s lives – and this one came as a direct result of his leukaemia. Denise was an anxious child growing up and her mum had introduced her to a myriad of tools including journaling, meditation and affirmations to help. While Ciaran had always been supportive with his wife’s personal development and wellness practices, it was only after his leukaemia diagnosis that he fully immersed himself in the techniques.   

“We both got into it. And while we spent those long days in hospital together we talked a lot about our sense of starting over again and what we wanted to do. Denise said she’d love to create her own journal using her method. I’d started businesses before and I would do anything to help her realise her dream. We thought up the name ‘The Head Plan’ while I was lying in my hospital bed, and by December 2019 she drew up the designs and we got a couple of hundred made which immediately sold out online.”  

Headplan journal

By 2020, The Head Plan was sold in Arnotts and Brown Thomas, prestigious department stores, and by the end of the following year the company had two fulfilment centres complete with their entire range of self-development and wellness products, a business HQ with a thriving team and an app with a community of over 40,000 people. In 2022 The Head Plan won the renowned IMAGE PWC Start-Up of the Year award, and in 2023 it was time to aim even higher and set even bigger business goals. The Head Plan tagline is ‘write it down & make it happen’, and that’s exactly what these two Qualified Life & Wellness Coaches continue to do.   

Dragons’ Den delivers

“I loved entrepreneurship and had always been a fan of Dragons’ Den. I said to Denise, let’s do it. At least if it doesn’t work we will have a story for Charlotte! So we sent in an application – and got the call. They spend months trawling through your business to make sure everything is above board, but in May 2023 we found ourselves waiting in that lift for the door to open to do our pitch. You’re in there for about ten minutes. I’ve gotta admit I was scared – I’ve faced leukaemia but my stomach was in my throat.”  

Denise and Ciaran’s pitch was a success. Business tycoon Peter Jones offered to give The Head Plan £80,000 for 10% of the company. After completing all due diligence procedures, The Head Plan signed the legal agreement with Peter Jones in February 2024, just as the episode aired on BBC1. 

Ciaran, Denise and Peter Jones

Ciaran remains in remission, is no longer on any medication, and just has annual hospital checks. And in line with his business, he’s on a mission to focus on the positives around his leukaemia journey.  

“I think we could actually do with changing the word ‘cancer’ and the whole vibe around it. There’s so much to be positive about. People get through this, and there are amazing strides in research of the sort Leukaemia UK does, every single day. Stem cell transplants are a miracle – brought about by research. I thought my life was over and would never be the same again. In fact it’s never been better.”  

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