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Meet the piper and his son who stole a march on cancer

As President of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, Winston Pinkerton’s nominated charity is the Friends of the Cancer Centre. The retired pathologist from Aldergrove tells Una Brankin his special reasons for choosing it

Published 09/04/2015

Family ties: Winston Pinkerton with his wife Eunice, sons Darren (centre) and Neil, with grandsons
Jake and Owen, who are involved in a massive fundraising drive
Family ties: Winston Pinkerton with his wife Eunice, sons Darren (centre) and Neil, with grandsons Jake and Owen, who are involved in a massive fundraising drive
Positive approach: Winston Pinkerton says wife Eunice’s upbeat attitude was a huge help
Adored granda: Winston with Jake (left) and Owen

All cancer patients know the dread of waiting for scan results in a cold corridor, vulnerable in a flimsy hospital gown and clutching at their faith to see them through. But not many go through the experience while their child faces exactly the same fear and gruelling schedule of surgery and treatments.

Winston Pinkerton (70) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins high-grade lymphoma in March 2010, just five months after his son Darren (44) was told he had cancer of the colon, the disease that killed actress Lynda Bellingham last November.

“It was a difficult time, particularly for my wife Eunice,” says Winston, a former pathologist and farmer. “I was diagnosed in March — Darren got his news the November before. You do turn to your faith at times like that — it does help. It was very hard to keep positive at times, but my wife kept me going. She was very encouraging. I still get a bit emotional thinking about it.”

There was no link or hereditary factors at play in the father and son’s diseases, with the only vaguely possible exception of an uncle of Winston’s, who died from leukaemia, which, like lymphoma, is a disease of the blood.

Darren went on to make a good recovery and is now back at work full-time as a dentist. Winston — born on VE Day (May 8) and named after Churchill — is also doing well, but feels his “age catching up” after his protracted battle with the aggressive cancer of the lymphatic system, which started in the area around his stomach area and in his neck. Ironically, a major part of Winston’s job, at the NHS Biomedical Scientist Pathology Laboratories at Belfast City Hospital, was dealing with biopsies and cell samples for cancer diagnosis.

A handsome, well-built man, he had enjoyed this career and was settling into retirement at his picturesque family farm in Aldergrove, where the Pinkertons are a respected and well liked family, and his prominent role with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA), when he received his frightening diagnosis.

"I was taking the dog for a walk and I suddenly felt very sick," he recalls, over afternoon tea in the living room of his large country house. "I had a bad stomach upset and when it didn't get better I went to see my GP - he thought it was a kidney infection and put me on antibiotics. And when they didn't work, I had to have an X-ray to see if I'd a stone in my kidney.

"So there was a bit of a delay in my treatment. I felt really ill - I had night sweats and I'd completely lost my appetite, so there was a big loss of weight. I was starting to think of going private - I didn't know what to do - when another pathologist said straight to me 'I don't think you have a stone in your kidney'.

"He recommended a consultant and I went into A&E dehydrated. I was put on a drip and had a CT scan done. I got the diagnosis on Good Friday, five years ago. It was way deep in, by my stomach, and when the consultant examined me, she found a lump in the side of my neck that I hadn't noticed.

"In fact, there was a whole row of them up the gland.

"Then a biopsy showed it was a high-grade non-Hodgkins lymphoma. That floored me. I knew a young pathologist who had died from it - she was buried a week after I retired.

"The consultant said it was aggressive and, well, I was like 'Oh dear'," he adds with a slightly nervous laugh. "And she said 'But don't worry, it's the one you can cure'. She's a great girl, they all are in there. I hate to hear people criticising the health service. It makes me cross."

Due to the delay with Winston's diagnosis, his haematologist recommended beginning chemotherapy the very next day - 24 hours before his son Darren's surgery to remove his colon.

"That was a tough time for my wife Eunice, but she stayed positive," he says.

"My treatment went well, but I had a weakness in my legs and arms. It was particularly bad at 12 days after treatment, but not too severe.

"I lost my hair after the second treatment. After the third, I felt quite ill. Food was tasteless and I had a metal taste in mouth. I was very weak and alternatively sweating and feeling cold - my temperature at one stage was 39C.

"I contacted the clinic and they brought me in for a course of IV antibiotics to stabilise my temperature."

At almost 6ft, William's weight had normally been around 13 and a half stone. During chemotherapy, it dropped to under 10 stone.

"I was a walking skeleton with no hair," he admits. "It definitely was a case of the cure being worse than the disease. I was very weak by then - I had a wheelchair and a seat fitted in the shower, but I tried to walk as much as possible. I had another scan at that stage and it did show the lumps had gone, except a small pea-sized one in my groin. So far, so good. The treatment was working."

The fourth and fifth rounds of chemo furthered weakened the then 65-year-old and his temperature continued to increase, for no apparent reason. An MRI scan revealed a fistula, a small channel that develops between the end of the bowel and the skin near the anus.

With his immune system at an all-time low, the fistula had become infected and Winston had to undergo surgery to have it drained. Too weak for the sixth round of chemo, he was left to recover from surgery for 10 weeks. Then came the scan that was to point the way forward for his treatment - and his life. "I will never forget waiting for the results of that scan in October. That's when you need your faith. Thankfully it showed no disease present, which meant there was hopefully no more treatment required. I gave the consultant a big hug when she told me it was all away; it was a big relief."

Perhaps not having wanted to have the knowledge, Winston isn't sure which stage his cancer had reached.

"I don't know exactly; maybe four, but they daren't have done the last round of the chemo with me being so weak. I had peripheral neuropathy - muscular wasting, and during treatment we always had to be aware that I had an irregular heartbeat. I had trouble walking and going up the stairs, and terrible problems with my feet. The chemo leaks out through your feet so they were completely numb. My stomach didn't work, so there was bloating, constipation and haemorrhoids."

Through the dark days, Winston was helped enormously by his family, including his younger son Neil (37), the recovering Darren and his grandsons, Jake (12) and Owen (10). He also received a lot of support from his fellow Royal Scottish Pipe bandsmen. In 1956, at the age of 11, Winston had joined Ballydonaghy Pipe Band as a learner piper. He was appointed band secretary in 1964 and progressed to the top band post of pipe major in 1965.

During his 32 years as pipe major, he had the honour of seeing the band win the grade four All Ireland title three times and the band's promotion to grade three in 1988. He also played in the Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band (Belfast) and Seven Towers Pipe Band (Ballymena).

Formerly chairman of the Co Antrim branch of the RSPBA from 2000 to 2010, Winston was appointed vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland branch in 2003 and was appointed vice-president in 2008 when he retired from his job.

"The fellas were great coming to see me and it really helped to talk to them and the ones from the golf. Six months after treatment, I began to get more strength and I was able to play six holes of golf. That went up to the full 18 after nine months," he says.

"My feet remained numb for up to two years, but they are okay now. I was put on this high-fat diet - lots of fries and cream cakes - so my weight came back and now I have to watch it."

Winston still attends the cancer centre for a check-up every six months. Due to his illness, he had to take a year out from his pipe band involvement during the 2010 season, and was grateful when he was able to resume the post in 2011.

Previously RSPBANI vice-president, he was appointed president in November 2014 in succession to Fred Walker, who retired after nine years in the top post. The NI Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital was Winston's obvious choice for the RSPBANI president's charity of 2015.

"My field at work was diagnosing, mainly in cervical screening. Jade Goody from Big Brother did a lot of good in raising awareness of that, but there's always more that needs to be done in preventing and treating cancer in general. The cancer centre at the City Hospital has done some great research, but there's so much more they could do, if they had the money. That's why it's great for us to be able to support them this year."

Winston no longer plays with the bands - "my puff went" - but he still teaches young players.

"One of the reasons I was attracted to the association is that it is cross-community," Winston says.

"That's very important to me - I'm not overly religious or anything, but I have Christian values and it is a good thing to bring the different communities together this way. We always got on well, even through the Troubles.

"It doesn't matter what you are when it comes to music.

"We've the All-Ireland and UK championships coming up, which are great events, and a good opportunity to raise funds for the cancer centre, too.

"After all, nearly everyone in Northern Ireland will need it at some stage, either for their own treatment or a family member's."

If you want to support Winston's fundraising, email him at: winston.pinkerton@yahoo.co.uk

How pipe bands are raising funds for charity

  • The Friends of the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital is the chosen charity for 2015 of the local branch of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA) and will benefit from the upcoming Pipe Band & Drum Major Championships.
  • The first major bands competition will be held in Bangor on Saturday, May 16, followed by Enniskillen, May 23, Cookstown, Saturday, June 6, Stormont, Saturday, June 13, Omagh, Saturday, July 4, Glenarm, Saturday, July 18, Moira, Saturday, August 1, Rostrevor, Saturday, August 8 and Portrush, Saturday, August 22. 
  •  The chosen charity for the RSPBANI (Co Down Section) competition in Lurgan Park on Saturday, June 20 is the NI Children’s Hospice.
  • In choosing his 2015 charity, RSPBA president Winston Pinkerton says: “I chose Friends of the Cancer Centre as this year’s charity because, as well as having been treated for cancer myself, I am quite sure that most members of each pipe band in Northern Ireland know of someone affected by cancer who has also been treated at the Cancer Centre.”
  • Claire Hogarth, Friends of the Cancer Centre’s fundraising manager, says: “We’re absolutely delighted to be chosen as the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association’s charity for this year’s Pipe Band and Drum Major Championships.
  • “And I would like to thank its president, Winston Pinkerton, for nominating Friends of the Cancer Centre.
  • “We are really looking forward to the upcoming competitions and it will be a great opportunity to see such amazing bands in action, as well as raise money for the charity through the collections on the day.
  • “The money we raise through this partnership will make a huge difference to the work that we do and it will have a lasting impact on thousands of local people affected by cancer.”

Winston’s cancer journey tips

  • Keep in touch with friends
  •  Talk about your problems
  •  Contact your medical team if you have any worries
  • Tell your medical team everything, no matter how trivial
  • Watch what you eat — plenty of fruit and vegetables, and drink plenty
  • Take laxatives if necessary
  •  Use mouth-wash after each meal
  •  Visit the chiropodist regularly to ease feet
  •  Make notes of any problems

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