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We're lucky to be alive: Three people who fought cancer

These three people from Northern Ireland went to their GP with what they thought were minor symptoms only to find out they had cancer. Their message to you? Always get checked out

Published 07/04/2015

Janine McCann
Janine McCann
Michelle Beggs
Captain Robert Gray

It is scary to think that at least one in three of us will get cancer at some time in our lives and with early detection so crucial to survival rates a major new campaign is urging us all to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease.

Survival rates in Northern Ireland for some cancers fall below other parts of the UK and Europe and it is believed that part of this could be due to the fact that we don't know what the symptoms are and that we are reluctant to talk to a GP.

Be Cancer Aware is a major new drive by the Public Health Agency (PHA) aimed at making sure we all know what the signs are and then speak to our GP if we experience any of them.

The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the easier it can be to treat, so the 'Be Cancer Aware' campaign highlights how important it is to know what to look out for and to get yourself checked if you notice anything which could point towards cancer.

The multi-phased campaign is being developed in consultation with a broad range of cancer charities and stakeholders, and will begin with a cross-platform programme of general awareness-raising, before turning its focus to specific cancer sites in turn.

Dr Miriam McCarthy, consultant in Public Health Medicine at the PHA, revealed that there are over 10,000 new cancer diagnoses each year in Northern Ireland but with advances in treatment and care in recent years, there is often a lot that can be done to tackle it.

She says: "Early detection and treatment are essential. Survival rates in Northern Ireland for some cancers fall below what is achieved elsewhere in the UK and Europe. Some of this may be due to low levels of awareness of cancer symptoms and a reluctance to talk to a GP at an early stage.

"A survey undertaken on behalf of the PHA revealed that barriers to seeking help in relation to cancer symptoms include being worried about what the doctor might find and embarrassment. We are urging people to set these concerns aside and speak to their GP if they have any signs or symptoms.

"Finding cancer early and getting it treated can really make the difference and greatly improve the likelihood of survival.

"It is therefore vital for all of us to be cancer aware, to know the signs and symptoms of cancer, and to speak to a GP if we experience any of them."

Cancer can strike at any age, but almost nine out of 10 cancers are diagnosed in people over 50, so that group, in particular, needs to be aware of how important it is to recognise any changes to their body and speak to their doctor if something isn't right.

We spoke to three people who had no idea when they first visited their GPs that the symptoms they were experiencing were a sign that they had cancer.

'Without treatment I wouldn't be able to enjoy my grandkids'

Janine McCann (65), from Killinchy, was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in December 2003 after a routine smear test. She is retired and married to John (70), a farmer. They have two children, Julie (36) and Steven (38), and two grandchildren. She says:

In May 2003 I went to my GP for a routine smear test and mentioned I was having spotting between periods. I thought it was probably the menopause as I was 53 at the time. My GP referred me on, but I wasn't concerned at the symptoms and I otherwise felt good.

I was very fit and prided myself on looking after myself and being thin - cancer hadn't even entered my mind.

When I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer - cancer of the womb - it was a bit of a shock, but once I knew there was hope that proved a huge help.

If you know it can be treated that makes all the difference to being told there is nothing that can be done.

I had a hysterectomy and then in May 2004 started brachytherapy, a type of internal radiotherapy.

The treatment was pretty rough and left me with complications.

But the cancer is now behind me and today I see it as being the only interruption in my life.

The fact that I was very fit and well at the time meant that physically I recovered from the surgery quickly.

Unfortunately I was left with chronic radiation enteritis, which is damage to the lining of the bowel caused by the radiation. However, I know the treatment was a necessary evil to ensure my recovery.

Since then I know treatment has improved and it's only a very small number of people who now experience complications like that.

I am now retired, but live a full life and without the treatment I would not be here to enjoy my grandchildren, see the flowers and herbs reappear each year, or sail on the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

I am fortunate to have an understanding husband and close family.

I feel needed and loved, which is a joy at any age or situation. I do have my "not so good days" still, but I know they will pass and I take them as an excuse to indulge in reading or TV - not to mention some chocolate.

I think this new campaign is very important and I would advise anyone who experiences something that is not normal for them to go to your GP and don't put it off.

I thought I was going for a routine smear and just happened to mention spotting between periods. I wasn't thinking of cancer at all.

I have since learnt that if you have been through the menopause, any vaginal bleeding is considered to be abnormal; if you have not yet been through the menopause, unusual bleeding may include bleeding between your periods.

Either way you should see you GP as soon as possible - while it is unlikely that it is caused by womb cancer, it is best to be sure.

My cancer had jumped a grade from diagnosis to surgery, so if I had not bothered to go I may not have had such a positive outcome.

Only a tiny percentage of patients get complications from treatment and even with these, you still have a life."

'I felt I was in a worse predicament than the Titanic's captain'

Captain Robert Gray (71), from Carrickfergus, was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago. Robert has travelled the world as a master mariner, and he worked on the cross-channel ferries as captain and then port captain. He is married to Joan and has three children, Innes (41), Virginia (40) and Peter (33). He says:

Having spent more than 50 years as a seafarer dealing with all sorts of difficulties, when I was told I had aggressive prostate cancer four years ago, I felt I was in a worse predicament than the captain of the Titanic. I had no control over what was happening and this was a totally new experience for me.

It had all started with a phone call from an old shipmate. I had a slight need to pass water more frequently, which I thought was part of growing old. I had not realised it was a symptom.

My friend, Terry, mentioned in conversation that he'd had a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. I hadn't a clue what this was, so he explained that it measured the blood level of PSA, a protein that is produced by the prostate gland. A raised PSA can indicate an infection or an enlarged prostate, but also the presence of prostate cancer.

A couple of weeks later, I went to the GP and had a blood test for PSA. I was surprised when my doctor phoned the next morning with the result. I had a biopsy three weeks later.

When the diagnosis was given, I was shocked. I was 67 at the time, but in good shape. I attended the gym three times a week, walked and played golf - how could this happen to me?

My wife and I felt as if the earth had shifted under us, and we sat in shocked silence as we listened to what the urologist had to say. I would start hormone therapy immediately and have a CT and MRI scan to see if the cancer had spread.

During that time, I feared the worst - that the cancer had spread. The wait for the results seemed like forever. So when the doctor told us the scans had shown no cancer outside the prostate, I was overjoyed.

I was told that the scans were clear and that the cancer was within the prostate. Things were looking better! I would continue the hormone therapy for about two-and-a-half years and I would be given about seven-and-a-half weeks of radiotherapy.

My treatment finished in March 2013, but I am reviewed every six months. I'm fine now and have always felt okay. The radiotherapy wasn't as bad as I thought it would have been. I was still able to continue to go to the gym and play golf.

Now I take each day as it comes and appreciate my wife, three children and five grandchildren all the more.

I would urge anyone who is concerned about their symptoms to go and see their GP as soon as possible. It is better to know what you are dealing with, then you can face it head-on.

The Titanic may have sunk, but this captain plans to go on to complete many more voyages."

'I had to be strong for my son who'd lost his brother'

Michele Beggs (50), from Ballyclare, used to run her own taxi company in the town until she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Michele has a son Connor (21) and lost her second son Josh to Sudden Death Syndrome when he was just 15. She says:

Since I was 15, I probably smoked around 15 to 20 cigarettes a day. I had been having a couple of chest infections a year for a couple of years.

In June 2012, I took a severe pain in my shoulder, but I thought I had probably pulled a muscle at work from lifting shopping bags.

My mother had been encouraging me to go and see the doctor, but I didn't bother. Then the pain in my shoulder became so bad that I knew I had to go to the GP.

At the time, I knew in myself that there was something not right. As a smoker I was aware of the symptoms of lung cancer and that concerned me.

My GP took blood tests and rang that night to tell me to go straight to Antrim Hospital. There, I was kept in a couple of days to manage the pain and the chest infection. They also did a lung biopsy and a PEP scan.

I think I knew when they did the biopsy that I had cancer.

I was told on July 10 and hearing the news was very hard. But from the start I was determined to fight it.

Looking back, though, I don't think that I really took it all in at the time and it's only now that I realise how big the operation was to remove my lung.

I am thankful that I was diagnosed early and that was central to my recovery.

Following surgery I had a very tough year. I was told that there may be recurring chest infections and I was in hospital a number of times.

My cancer diagnosis and treatment followed the sudden death of my 15-year-old son, Josh, in 2007 which was a very devastating period in my life.

Josh had been home for lunch and was walking back to school. He had walked just 200 yards and dropped dead from Sudden Death Syndrome.

It was tough because I had to be strong for my other son who already had lost his brother.

I got counselling which, during the last few extremely difficult years, has been crucial to my recovery and I am currently on the waiting list for bereavement counselling.

The cancer really has changed the quality of my life. I now have difficulty with my breathing and if I am out and about, I need oxygen to help me. I was a keen golfer before, but now I can't play and I'm just content following the progress of the top Northern Ireland players. But I am alive and that is the most important thing.

My early diagnosis meant the treatment was successful and I would urge anyone to go to their GP if they have something which they are worried about. You know your own body better than anybody so don't ignore it if you have signs or symptoms that could point to cancer - and don't delay in going to your GP.

It can make a crucial difference to your outcome."

Those tell-tale signs

Some of the common signs and symptoms you should ask your doctor to check out include:

coughing up blood

blood in urine

blood mixed through bowel motion (stools)

a change in bowel habit that lasts for more than six weeks

unexplained, significant weight loss (5kg/10lb over a couple of months)

a lump anywhere on your body

changes on your skin or to an existing mole (such as itching, bleeding or a change in shape or colour)

a sore that doesn't heal

symptoms that refuse to clear up, eg a cough or hoarseness that lasts for more than three weeks

For the campaign, the PHA has developed a new website at www.becancerawareni.info. The website provides information about cancer signs and symptoms, explains what to do if you're concerned, and signposts to recommended

Belfast Telegraph

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