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Gutsy Belfast granny copes with a lung cancer diagnosis by jumping out of a plane at 13,000ft

A retired Belfast home economics technician and tennis enthusiast tells Stephanie Bell why she is taking the plunge

Published 10/11/2015

Jump to it: Liz Thompson skydiving from 13,000ft
Jump to it: Liz Thompson skydiving from 13,000ft
High times: Liz abseiling
High times: Liz in action

You can't help but admire Liz Thompson, a gutsy Belfast granny who has coped with a shattering lung cancer diagnosis by throwing herself into extreme challenges for charity.

Liz, who is an active sportswoman and plays tennis for Ulster and Ireland, doesn't smoke or drink which made the diagnosis all the more shocking.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and Liz shares her story today in the hope of highlighting that the condition doesn't necessarily just strike those living an unhealthy lifestyle.

Since her diagnosis in March 2013, the 66-year-old retired home economics technician has felt compelled to contribute towards research through fundraising - but her idea of supporting local cancer charities is no walk in the park.

Just a few months after her diagnosis, Liz threw herself out of a plane at 13,000ft in a fundraising skydive for Friends of the Cancer Centre.

She then picked Belfast's tallest building - the 279ft high Obel Tower - to abseil down in aid of Cancer Focus, and earlier this year took on the Friends of Cancer Centre Tower Challenge, an abseil down the 190ft Belfast City Hospital tower block.

In total Liz has raised around £3,000 for cancer charities through her stunts and she remains positive despite the fact that she is living with a cancer which cannot be cured but is being controlled through medication.

She sums up her admirable stance simply when she explains: "I suppose I am the daredevil type, I like to try new things and take a bit of a gamble.

"The way I look at it is if I didn't have this drug which is keeping the cancer at bay, I wouldn't be here and it is because of research that I have access to this medication and that's why I want to help contribute towards research."

Liz lives in Belfast and is married to Allen (67), a retired photographer. They have three daughters, Lynsey (36), Julie (34) and Zoe (31) and a new grandson, Oliver who is 12 weeks old.

She has played sport all of her life and travels the world competing with the Ulster and Ireland tennis teams. She is a keen cyclist and loves to walk.

It was when she found herself a little bit more out of breath than usual during these activities that she suspected all was not well, even though she had no other symptoms.

She says: "I was playing a tennis match at Belfast Boat Club and I just felt a bit more out of breath than usual but not enough to stop me playing.

"I would cycle up the Annadale Embankment and when I got to the top of the hill I was really out of breath and that wasn't usual and I thought something is not right here.

"I went to my GP and he arranged for me to have an X-ray in Belfast City Hospital which showed there was fluid on my left lung. I then had a CT scan and had to go back to get more fluid drained and they took four litres of fluid from my lung."

Liz was shattered to be told there were cancer cells in an area which could not be operated on. She was, however, offered medication which is designed to prevent the cancer from developing any further.

The diagnosis came as a shocking blow as Liz had always associated lung cancer with smoking. Yet while smoking is one of the main causes of lung cancer, the disease can strike anyone.

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer among men and women in Northern Ireland with an average of 1,094 cases diagnosed every year.

Liz says: "I was devastated when I was diagnosed. My father had asbestosis and it was in the back of my mind that maybe with it still being on his clothes when he came home from work that I might have picked something up. I never thought of cancer as I didn't smoke or drink and was always active.

"I actually thought I was dreaming when they told me I had lung cancer. I just couldn't believe it or that they couldn't operate. My consultant was terrific and reassured me that for the type of cells I had there was this great drug to keep it at bay.

"I go every month for an X-ray and every other month for a CT scan and so far the medication is containing it. I can't get rid of it but it is not getting any worse. Indeed, I actually now forget that I have cancer because I feel so good.

"Initially because of the shock of being diagnosed I didn't know what was going to happen and thought that I would never play tennis again but I was back playing within just a few months and won the Irish Indoors in 2014 and took part in the Inter Pro for Ulster in May 2014."

Her gratitude at being able to continue her active lifestyle because of the medication she is taking is what has driven her to get involved in fundraising.

Her family are also supporting her and have raised funds for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.

Liz's positive attitude is inspirational and as well as being keen to help with research, she also wants to raise awareness of the disease.

She adds: "When I was first in the lung department of the hospital all around me people were coughing and I never had a cough.

"Maybe if I hadn't played tennis I wouldn't have realised I was a bit breathless and it wouldn't have been picked up. I dread to think what the outcome might have been then.

"I think it is important that people realise that you don't have to be a smoker to get lung cancer.

"I just live life to the full now and enjoy my friends and family and playing tennis and walking and cycling. I keep myself going and I am inclined to forget I have something wrong with me which I think is a good thing."

How you can reduce risks of cancer

As Liz's case shows, anyone can be affected by lung cancer but there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing lung cancer

  • Stop smoking - smoking is the biggest risk factor contributing to lung cancer
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Make sure you take regular exercise

What Friends of The Cancer Centre does

  • Liz supports the centre, which is a charity based right at the heart of the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital
  • The Cancer Centre provides chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy treatments for patients from across Northern Ireland. On average, 300 people are treated with radiotherapy each day (Mon-Fri) in the Cancer Centre and each week up to 2,500 patients receive chemotherapy in the Cancer Centre's Bridgewater Suite. The role of Friends of the Cancer Centre is to support these patients, as well as their family, through their treatment and make sure that their time in the hospital is as comfortable as possible.
  • All money raised for the charity stays in Northern Ireland and is put into projects which directly benefit patients, who come from across NI for treatment, and their families
  • The charity's work focuses on supporting three key areas within the hospital: clinical care, patient comfort and care, and research.
  • Last year, the charity partnered with the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen's University, Belfast and announced an investment of nearly £1m into locally led cancer research over the next three years. It also funds several researchers and laboratory technicians, who carry out vital work in the laboratories, and also vital research equipment.

Belfast Telegraph

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