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Why there is life after being told you have cancer... and we're the proof!

Published 02/08/2016

Planning ahead: Janine McCann suffered injuries after radiation treatment
Planning ahead: Janine McCann suffered injuries after radiation treatment
Coping together: Alex McGuiggan and his wife Anne

Thanks to advances in treatment and earlier diagnosis, people are living longer after cancer. Patients are now twice as likely to live for at least 10 years after being told they have the disease than they were at the start of the 1970s.

A report by Macmillan Cancer Support has revealed that more than 170,000 people in the UK who were diagnosed in the Seventies and Eighties are still alive - a fact which Macmillan describes as "extraordinary".

However, the report acknowledges that there is still a huge variation in survival rates according to the type of cancer involved, and it also recognises that one in four cancer patients will come out of treatment with debilitating and very serious side effects.

Two long-term survivors from Northern Ireland tell us their stories of survival and how the disease has affected their lives.

'The radiation badly damaged my bowel but this is still better than the alternative'

Janine McCann (66) is married to John (71). They live in Killinchy and have two children, Julie (37) and Steven (40). She says:

I have been living with cancer since 2003. At that time, I went along to my doctor for a routine smear test. I happened to mention that I was spotting in between periods and he said they would do some further investigations.

That doctor's appointment saved my life.

I had a procedure the week before Christmas and was diagnosed with Endometrial Cancer (cancer of the womb) that week.

As it was the week before Christmas I decided not to tell my family, so I bottled it up until January, when I had to go into hospital for a radical hysterectomy. I had to tell them then. Everyone was upset but we just wanted to get the treatment started.

I was great after the surgery as I was fit and healthy before the operation.

Six weeks later I had radiotherapy and then, in May 2004, I had brachytherapy which is a type of internal radiotherapy when they place rods inside your body.

I wasn't told at the time of the possible long-term consequences of this treatment, and it wasn't until later when I started having nausea and diarrhoea and was always tired that I realised the pelvic radiotherapy had damaged by bowel and my bladder.

I ended up in A&E and on a drip for three weeks while they investigated and found out what damage had been done.

The bowel was so bad they had to take away a bit of it and my bladder doesn't work at all now.

This has been a huge adjustment and something I have to live with every day, but I am thankful there is more information out there now and more awareness about the dangers of pelvic radiation.

It was necessary for me and it saved my life, but the side effects are difficult.

I constantly need to run to the toilet and I am always in pain with cramps and nausea.

This makes planning anything difficult but I have good days and bad days.

It doesn't stop me doing the things I want to do.

I still travel with my husband and we have days out together as a family.

I am used to running into any building and asking them if they have a toilet I can use. I have no dignity that way.

But it is better than the alternative.

My family have been extremely supportive and my husband has never once made me feel awkward or embarrassed.

I have just had to adjust my life around my condition and I never plan anything for early in the morning as that's when I am not great.

While there is better access to information I believe there should be a cancer specialist who deals solely with this.

I have to watch my diet and have a completely low-fibre diet; I can't eat vegetables or fruit and nuts. I eat very plain food.

At the time I had to change my job as I was working as a therapist and I couldn't see clients and run to the toilet all the time. It's a bit like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) with similar symptoms except it comes with nausea and tiredness as well.

It can have big implications, particularly if you were younger or single as it could affect your social life and your sex life, and have financial implications as you couldn't work.

It has been very isolating at times but my family has been brilliant and I have had the support of Macmillan and up to date information from them."

‘I broke down and cried at thought of losing my voice box’

Alex McGuiggan (67) is an Open University lecturer who lives in Bangor with his wife Anne. They have three children, Mark (39), Jayne (37) and Gareth (31). He says:

I am living proof that people diagnosed with cancer over 10 years ago live longer. I was diagnosed 17 years ago when I was just turning 50. In fact I spent my 50th birthday in hospital.

Back then I started to notice my voice was changing.

I was becoming very hoarse. Like most men I put off going to the doctors as I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.

I believe men not going to their doctors when they should is an attitude we need to change.

Eventually Anne nagged me to go as she noticed it was prolonged and wasn’t getting any better.

The doctor referred me to a specialist and they did a biopsy.

The first came back all clear and I was referred for speech and language therapy but this didn’t make any improvement.

As a teacher my voice is my main tool of the trade so I was worrying that it wasn’t going to get any better.

I went back to see the consultant and they did another biopsy which this time came back positive and I was told I had stage one cancer.

But later when the consultant had a more thorough look he said I had stage three laryngectomy and I needed my voice box removed. 

I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my voice box.

They say that big boys don’t cry but I did and so did all of my family. We were heartbroken but the surgeon assured me that he would give me a voice box better than the one I had.

I went for surgery and I was scared but the consultant was 99.9% sure they had got all the cancer from my body which was a relief.

I had to go for radiotherapy sessions but since that I haven’t had an antibiotic in my body.

 I am very healthy and well and consider myself very lucky.

I never smoked and don’t drink alcohol — I was just unlucky.

But I never allowed myself to get down or depressed about it and the family took their lead from me.

When I got my head around it and was able to cope with it so were they.

I am retired from teaching now but I still lecture at the Open University and I give professional talks.

My wife says I am busier than ever. There is a lot of ignorance around cancer treatment and care but I received the best treatment and I am indebted to my surgeon.

I’ve lived on for 17 years, looking after myself and eating well and exercising when I can. My heart is still in good shape.

I volunteer for Cancer Focus and I do a lot of work with my church.

All of that keeps me busy and out of mischief.

I feel very privileged to have survived and am here to tell the tale.”

Belfast Telegraph

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