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'I was in bed for three months with the pain after my cancer diagnosis - now my goal is to climb Slieve Donard'

A year ago Belfast man Tony McGall could barely walk following a cancer diagnosis. Now, after the support of a Marie Curie physiotherapist he will be striding forth for the charity's Walk Ten event next Friday

By Stephanie Bell

Published 01/09/2016

Marching on: Tony McGall is firmly on the road to recovery
Marching on: Tony McGall is firmly on the road to recovery
Busy retirees: Tony and his wife Valerie
Working out: Tony with Marie Curie physio Kerry McGrillen
Working out: Tony with Marie Curie physio Kerry McGrillen
Working out: Tony with Marie Curie physio Kerry McGrillen

After an extremely unusual form of cancer which caused his face to collapse, retired Belfast mission director Tony McGall was left so weak that this time last year he was struggling to walk.

Able only to eat very little for months because of the disease Tony's body wasted away, and he was so frail he couldn't get out of bed without support.

Just over a year later, though, the 71-year-old is not only enjoying good health again but is planning to take part in the annual Marie Curie Walk Ten to show his appreciation to the charity who he credits with helping him get back on his feet.

Tony has attended Marie Curie's physiotherapist Kerry McGrillen every week for the past year in a determined effort to get back to enjoying a busy lifestyle again.

He says: "Walking 10km will be tough but I feel I am up to it and I hope to get friends to walk with me. I have nothing but admiration for the professionalism of Marie Curie staff and Kerry who has helped me so much in my recovery."

Tony, who is married to Valerie, a retired teacher, has two sons and five grandchildren.

He and Valerie have kept busy since retiring with involvement in their local church Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast. Tony is also a keen golfer and both he and his wife enjoy walking, cycling and spending time with family and friends.

When his illness struck two years ago, the symptoms were severe and knocked him completely off his feet.

He was eventually diagnosed with cancer of the carotid gland and his only treatment option was radiotherapy.

He attended the Cancer Centre at the City Hospital for a period of seven weeks and pays tribute to the level of expertise, compassion and care encountered there.

He says he is also indebted to a team of medical specialists, including plastic surgeons who helped to rebuild part of his face, for their role in his treatment and recovery.

Tony had a mole on his cheek which he had removed but it was masking an aggressive cancer which very quickly travelled into the nerves in his face.

He recalls: "It was a very unusual thing. I was in bed for about three months with the pain and I was unable to eat much and lost a lot of weight.

"Eventually my face collapsed and my eye and jaw dropped down as my nerves had been weakened.

"I couldn't eat because I couldn't open my jaw properly for about three months and I lost so much weight. It was just the way that the cancer had affected the nerves.

"The doctors told me they couldn't operate because it would have been a complicated and major surgery involving taking part of my face and jaw away."

Tony underwent seven weeks of intensive radiotherapy for five days every week.

He has also had a number of plastic surgeries, mainly to rebuild his eyelid and brow, and had to undergo speech therapy as well as intensive physio to build up the strength in his body so that he could walk again.

At one point he also lost the ability to produce saliva which made eating extremely difficult. He also lost his taste buds.

The side effects of treatment also meant eating continued to be a problem.

He explains: "Eating without taste buds meant everything tasted like cardboard and you can't imagine how difficult it is to try and eat with no saliva. Thankfully both my taste buds and saliva have returned although I still have trouble with a dry mouth.

"I was so weak I couldn't get on my feet and I kept falling over.

"Last May I went to Kerry at Marie Curie for the first time and was only able to walk 30 yards with the aid of a stick.

"When I started going to Kerry I just decided to take one day at a time."

But the physiotherapy proved a turning point for Tony.

"It was great because physio was something I could do to help myself rather than have something done to me. I felt as if I was in control and that was a very important part of my recovery.

"I went from just walking down the corridor to where I am now, and it's just been amazing."

Now Tony is able to enjoy life again.

"Every week I saw progress and one of my goals was to play golf again. I was out playing this morning and was on holiday in London walking round the city last week.

"As well as doing Walk Ten I also want to climb Slieve Donard.

"I found during physio it was important to set goals. It was also good because I could see my progress - everyone could see it."

Tony has undergone a number of scans and is now clear of the cancer and in remission.

He still faces further surgery on his eye and has been left without hearing in one ear.

Despite this, though, he is very grateful to have recovered and now hopes to give something back by taking part in Marie Curie's Walk Ten on Friday, September 9.

Marie Curie has teamed up with Forestside Shopping Centre to launch its 2016 Walk Ten event which will take place in the grounds of the Stormont Estate.

Walk Ten is now in its sixth year and to date has raised over £500,000 for the charity.

This money has had a huge impact on people and their families living with a terminal illness and has enabled Marie Curie to continue to deliver its nursing service in the community and at its specialist hospice based in East Belfast.

Marie Curie has also used the funds raised to develop and deliver innovative services that can help support more people living with a terminal illness.

These include the Helper Service that offers companionship and emotional support and the creation of a dedicated information and support telephone line, 0800 090 2309 which provides useful information about living with a terminal illness and how to access expert nursing care.

Ciara Gallagher, head of fundraising at Marie Curie NI, said: "Walk Ten is a fantastic event and one that is always brilliantly supported by the public. It is a great excuse to get together with friends, family or colleagues for a beautiful 10K walk around Stormont.

"The great thing about Walk Ten is that it's a very sociable event. Everyone takes part at their own pace and we actively encourage walkers to bring a picnic, so they can relax and enjoy the live entertainment and fireworks finale after their walk. Any money raised from the event will be used by Marie Curie to help more people living with any terminal illness."

As for Tony he says he is just happy that he is able to take part: "I believe we are all on a journey and what happened to me was part of that.

"We all have ups and down in life from first breath, first cry, to final breath and on the journey that we have, sometimes we have no choice, the path is chosen for us.

"I had a lot of help and a lot of support from my church, family and friends which I am really grateful for.

"Marie Curie is a wonderful place. It's not just end of life care they offer, they do a lot to help recovery from all sorts of things.

"It's a bright place. People are friendly and I owe a lot to them and to Kerry for all her good work over the past year in helping me to get back on my feet again.

"It's very important to have hope - I think that's an element that's underrated. You've got to have hope."

And, of course, Tony is urging everyone to get their walking shoes on for the event. "I hope people get behind Walk Ten, support it and raise much-needed funds for Marie Curie."

Registration for Walk Ten is open. Walkers can sign up by visiting mariecurie.org.uk/walkten or for more information tel: 028 9088 2060. Marie Curie Helper Service tel: 0800 090 2309. Visit www.mariecurie.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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