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Ex-Tele journalist McGill determined to live life to full after terminal cancer diagnosis

Former Belfast Telegraph journalist Paul McGill talks to his old colleague Laurence White about the harrowing realities of a terminal cancer diagnosis

Published 30/11/2016

Originally from Derry, Paul and his second wife Linda eventually settled in Bunbeg, Donegal
Originally from Derry, Paul and his second wife Linda eventually settled in Bunbeg, Donegal

It was not a conversation I was looking forward to. I hadn't spoken to former Belfast Telegraph colleague Paul McGill for nearly 30 years and now there was a very large elephant in the room.

On the day I contacted him it was his 67th birthday. Two days earlier he had had a party in his big house in Bunbeg in Co Donegal - maybe 60 to 70 people - and he admits that he had perhaps overdone the celebration somewhat.

For he has recently been told that he has terminal cancer and its effects are draining on him. But what it hasn't done is rob him of his positive attitude.

After we exchange some pleasantries including enquiries about what he had done since leaving this newspaper he decides that he will just go ahead with the whole interview - "let's blatter on through it" he says - and he tells me his cancer story.

He was working with the NI Council for Voluntary Action in Belfast in September 2014 when the fateful diagnosis was made.

Although he had not been feeling unwell he was given a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test, which can detect early signs of an enlarged prostate. "It is not a very precise test but my readings were off the scale which raised a red flag. I then had a biopsy done - an unpleasant procedure to check for cancer, but even before the results came through I was put on a hormone suppressant course of injections.

"The diagnosis was a shock, and then in October and November I was told the cancer had spread to my back and spine. I was given chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but neither improved the situation. My oncologist stopped both and put me on a new drug but it did not work positively either. Radium treatment followed but it also failed.

"I had a very aggressive prostate cancer and a couple of months ago my oncologist said there was nothing else he could do for me apart from palliative care and that I did not have long to live."

All this is delivered in a very precise but matter-of-fact manner. It is not a denial of his condition, but rather an acceptance of it.

Paul remembers clearly the day he was told that his cancer had spread.

"I had an early morning appointment with my oncologist at Belfast City Hospital and after he told me the bad news I went to Central Station to catch the train to Dublin where I was due to give a presentation to people at Trinity College about NICVA's grant awards.

"It felt really strange sitting on the train saying to myself that I have got a serious cancer, so what am I doing going to Dublin."

Like many others, he went through a range of emotions after his diagnosis. "At the stage when you first hear it, you get a bit angry, asking 'why me?'. Then after that I did a lot of crying with my children (he has six, four with current wife Linda and two with former wife Bronagh Hinds).

"Next came the stage where I said: 'I am who I am and I might as well live life to the full'. I want to live for as long as I can and enjoy life with my wife and children (he also has 12 grandchildren).

"I don't think I am courageous but I am positive and have got to see what are the important things in life. When push comes to shove, the important things are not the money you have but your family and friends.

"We have some very old friends and some new ones who are all very important to us. A lot have come here to Donegal to visit us. There are two here at the moment along with one of my daughters and my youngest grandchild.

"For my birthday party a friend in northern Spain changed her plans to fly here, another came from Sheffield.

"It can be busy here when people come and it is great to have visitors, but it is also nice to have the peace and quiet when they all leave."

Paul accepts that other people have not reacted so positively when in receipt of a diagnosis like his. "I know of one person who simply went to bed and stayed there. I know others who are still angry and the anger is eating them up. Others are in denial. I had to come to terms with it and admit it was a bad situation. Sometimes you are angry and upset but you have to overcome that and ask yourself: 'What is the best thing to do?'

"My GP says I am a model patient because I am so positive. I go out every day for a little walk down our lane and I push myself to do that. I feel that is important. I also feel that the fresh air in this part of Donegal is doing me good. At one stage a few months ago when I was in hospital my wife thought I was going to die. I was really bad, vomiting all the time, and all I really wanted to do was get out of hospital. My consultant did not want me to go home so soon but I persuaded him, and I am glad I did.

"It helped a lot. I have put on some weight and feel a lot better than for some time. This is a good place to be."

As if to emphasise his attitude he explains his outlook further.

"If my life can be seen as a piece of string, then I am trying to make it as elastic as possible. When I do die I will be ready for it. I don't fear death and I have really good support here.

"I get visits from Donegal Hospice's outreach service but they know I am being well looked after here and that my preference is to die at home. They say they will do everything they can to make sure that happens and that a nurse will come out at the end stages to make sure I am all right - the main thing is to manage pain and keep it at bay.

"At the minute I have a list of tablets I take for pain control. I will be ready for the end when it comes. I know Linda and my children and grandchildren would be very upset. Some show emotions a lot and some don't, but that is fine with me."

As he contemplates his life's endgame he can look back on a varied career mostly with a common underpinning theme - giving people a better chance in life.

Originally from Londonderry, one of a family of six - his youngest sister was killed when an Army Land Rover was in collision with her car in the 1970s and his oldest brother passed away in more recent times - he went to Queen's University in Belfast where he graduated in law, although that was a career path he was not really interested in following.

Two stints working with the Union of Students of Ireland prefaced Paul joining the Education Times in Dublin, a stand-alone publication of the Irish Times, but it closed and then he joined the main newspaper working with Henry Kelly - "a serious journalist who later went into showbiz" - on a special reports team. He joined the Belfast Telegraph in 1978 as education correspondent, a job where he broke many exclusives and which caused constant ripples in the Department of Education, then headquartered near Bangor.

Paul was also a staunch member of the National Union of Journalists and as Father of the Chapel - essentially the editorial department's shop steward - was dedicated to ensuring the best possible terms and conditions for members.

He recalls that led to many heated meetings with management, but always held the editor of that time, Roy Lilley, in the highest regard. "Our discussions or disagreements were never personal and I was glad to meet him again recently," he adds.

His 10 years in this newspaper was the longest spell he spent in one job.

After leaving he went to York to work for the National Curriculum Council and it was there he met his wife Linda who he has been with for 26 years.

"Around that time I had a little holiday home in Donegal and Linda and I used to come across when we had a break. She loved the area and later we decided to move there permanently.

"We wanted to do something that we could work at together and bought a big house to turn it into a B&B. That was in 1995 and we both worked at it full-time, but gradually I returned to doing social policy work and a bit of journalism."

His social policy work brought him into contact with the Equality Commission, Making Belfast Work and anti-racism initiatives. He also worked for the World Bank, the Council of Europe and on a project for Kosova. His final career moves involved NICVA and the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in the Republic.

Paul remembers taking part in one project examining how European money was being spent in Northern Ireland. "At that time we were drowning in a sea of essential oils", he comments wryly, "as every project seemed to involve aromatherapists."

As we end our conversation Paul points out that his father Tom died five weeks short of his 97th birthday and his grandfather had also lived to a good age. "That can lead to you being presumptuous and think that you have good genes. This shows that you cannot take anything for granted. My oncologist gives me the impression that I have only got months, but I am planning to be around a lot longer than that. I may be wrong, but that is how I feel. Linda is very positive and gives me great support and we go out as often as possible - recently we went to a performance of Die Fledermaus, also a performance of Many Young Men Of Twenty Said Goodbye and an Altan concert."

In retrospect it wasn't a difficult conversation at all, but it was a humbling one.

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