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'I've always told my kids that I love them, but after surviving cancer, I hug them even more tightly'

Ahead of World Pancreatic Cancer Day on Thursday, Belfast banker Ivan McMinn tells Laurence White how, after the shock of being told he had the disease, he is grateful to be alive but is never complacent about health.

Published 15/11/2016

Fighting fit: Ivan McMinn is back at work
Fighting fit: Ivan McMinn is back at work
Ivan McMinn running the London marathon

One lunch hour, almost exactly five years ago, Ivan McMinn, left his desk in the Danske Bank in central Belfast for a doctor's appointment, telling colleagues he would be back in an hour and a half. It was to be 10 months before he sat behind his desk at work again.

For what he thought was a routine appointment to determine why he had an internal itching sensation, and the symptoms of jaundice, was to lead to a shocking diagnosis.

The father-of-two, a senior executive in the bank, had been to the doctor in May of that year suffering from back and tummy pain, and had been prescribed tablets for acid in his stomach.

Six months later, in November of that year, he was admitted to hospital with what was initially thought to be gallstones but which, within three days, was discovered to be pancreatic cancer, one of the more virulent forms of the disease.

It was, he now says, a huge shock.

"I was in training for the 2012 London marathon.

"I had run a half marathon two weeks earlier and during my training had taken part in a number of half marathons, 10K runs and triathlons.

"I loved sports, had played hockey for Banbridge in my younger days, also golf, swimming and running. I was quite competitive.

"Now I know a lot about pancreatic cancer, but then I knew very little, simply recognising it as one form of the disease. The diagnosis was an enormous shock.

"I was 49, in the prime of my life professionally and personally. I was very young to be diagnosed with the disease, the average age is around 72," Ivan says.

Three weeks after the diagnosis he was in surgery for a six to seven-hour operation, known as the Whipple procedure.

Surgeons removed the effected part of his pancreas, the duodenum (small intestine), the gall bladder and part of his stomach, and then - as Ivan amusingly described it - replumbed everything again.

"It is the most extensive abdominal procedure normally carried out, and there is a one in 10 chance that the patient may not survive it," Ivan adds.

"There is no doubt that my high levels of fitness helped greatly in the recovery - it enabled my body to respond quickly to the drugs."

So much so that he holds the record for early discharge from hospital after the operation.

"I was told if it went well I could be out in 14 days, or 30 days if things didn't go as hoped. I walked out of the hospital after six days."

But that was not the end of his treatment. There followed eight months of chemotherapy.

It was, he says, a marathon far different from the one he had been training for but the idea of competing in the London run had not left his mind.

He set himself the goal of taking part in the 2013 marathon in the capital - which he did, and again in 2014, raising an incredible £202,000 for research into pancreatic cancer.

"I set myself a few goals, mainly to prove that life was going to be normal again. My first shock was when I went back to work and found that I had been promoted.

"When I had left I was head of a team of 15 and came back to find I was in charge of a team of 126."

But in late 2014 there was another shock. Ivan was running a half marathon in Lithuania to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research when, on returning to his hotel that evening, he received a telephone call from his oncologist to inform him that tests taken before he left Northern Ireland had revealed new tumours on three lymph nodes.

"That was the bad news," he recalls. "The good news was I could have more chemotherapy and, after another 10 months, the tumours were no longer detectable."

While he had certainly gone through the mill dealing with the disease, he admits it was probably worse for his family.

When he was first diagnosed, his children Nicholas and Saskia were aged 14 and 12 respectively.

"My wife Judi and I discussed what we should do when I was told I had pancreatic cancer.

"We felt that the children were mature enough for us to adopt a totally honest approach with them. While the outlook was probably not great at the outset, there were other times when things looked more positive.

"I only had one prayer and that was to see the children go to university. I am just so thankful that instead of what was a very dark position potentially, we now have two mature, grown-up children should things return. It is not as serious a position as it could have been."

Ivan is right. Having survived for five years he is one of the fortunate few to reach that milestone. Only 5% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Northern Ireland live five years or more.

So how did he face up to the disease? "My mantra has always been faith, family and work. I have still to drop one tear about the cancer or lose one hour's sleep. It is not an emotional thing with me.

"I believe it can be easier for the patient to cope. I watched those around me not coping as well as I did. It is my view that it is as hard, or even harder, on those who are watching a loved one with the cancer."

And he puts his experience into perspective. "There are lots of times when someone who has been diagnosed wishes they could have chemotherapy but are told that it is not an option. I am in many ways fortunate in that I could have surgery and chemotherapy. Only 15% of those diagnosed have a chance of surgery. I may have been given an unfortunate diagnosis, but in lots of ways I was very fortunate."

Ivan, now 54, is head of business acquisition in Danske Bank in Belfast and describes his life as "totally normal".

He adds: "I can do everything that I did before. However, because my pancreas is not as large as it once was due to surgery, I have to take a supplement to help me break down food.

"The pancreas also produces insulin but thankfully mine is still doing that and I don't have diabetes. The only impact on my life is the scar I have across my abdomen and having to take a daily supplement. That is a very small debilitation."

He is also thankful for the support he received during his two recovery periods.

"I would describe myself as a realistic optimist - a person for whom the glass is usually half full. That was useful in my recovery, but more so was the support of lots of people including my family, friends and work colleagues. All were part of the survival package which got me through.

"When I was initially off for 10 months my wife was at work and the kids at school, and there could have been many lonely times if I had allowed myself to think that way.

"I was lucky. I received lots of telephone calls and offers of coffee and I also had lots of things to keep me occupied.

"I am chairman of Civil Service North of Ireland Cricket Club and the 106th President of Belfast Rotary Club - the third oldest in the world after Chicago and Dublin. I am also a member of Knock Presbyterian Church."

But he does admit his experience has changed him. "I am, I hope, a better person today than I was five years ago because of all I have gone through. I have been privileged to talk to many people who found themselves in a similar position to myself, and to try to help where I can.

"I have always believed that things happen for a purpose, that there is a purpose for everything. I can see that more clearly now than I ever could.

"I am more thankful now for every day that I have. I have told my kids every day of my life that I love them, but since being diagnosed I do hug them even tighter than before, although they are getting a bit old now for those hugs from dad.

"But I also feel almost a guilt at time when I am talking to someone else who has been told they have pancreatic cancer. You can sense that they are thinking 'you're okay, but I'm not'.

"All I can say to sum up my experience is that I am very thankful but never complacent."

Ivan continues to try to help others diagnosed with the disease. Yesterday he addressed other patients, MLAs and healthcare professionals on Pancreatic Cancer UK's new Patient Charter.

He explains: "I know that the care levels I received are not always offered to all those with the disease. When the prognosis is not good there may not be as much help available or literature or simply information on where the patient should go for more assistance.

"The Charter pulls all that information together in a way that was not available previously, and that is a very welcome thing."

Patients can download the Patient Charter from www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk and discuss it with their medical team

Deadly disease which requires surgery

  • Around 200 people die from pancreatic cancer in Northern Ireland each year
  • Some 80% are not diagnosed until the cancer is at an advanced stage
  • Surgery is the only treatment that can save lives yet only 8% of people with pancreatic cancer have the operation
  • Symptoms of this cancer include tummy pain which can spread to the back; significant and unexplained weight loss; yellow skin, eyes and itchy skin (jaundice); oily floating stools and severe indigestion

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