'I felt great yet routine health check revealed I'd a tumour that could have cost me my sight'
Game of Thrones extra Mark Hegan, from Lisburn, tells Una Brankin how a fitness MOT when he turned 60 proved one of his best decisions
It was a thrill for Mark Hegan when he first saw himself as an extra on Game Of Thrones. Little did he know, however, that he was one millimetre away from not being able to see anything ever again.
For while the retired businessman from Lisburn was filming in Ballintoy Harbour and at the Titanic studios, there was a time-bomb ticking in his head – a silent threat that wasn't making its presence known.
Towards the end of last year Mark turned 60 and decided to booked himself an appointment with Randox Health for its blood diagnostics testing.
"I thought given my age I'd better get an MoT to see how my body was keeping up with me," he says. "It was my first time going for one. Everything seemed absolutely fine – I keep fit enough, although I could do with losing a pound or two, but I thought I'd better keep an eye on my health.
"When it came to it, it was a toss-up between a weekend away or investing in a health check and I have no regrets about my decision."
Mark had blood samples taken by a nurse at Randox Health in Crumlin. The scientific team at Randox Laboratories then scoped Mark's blood at a molecular level and discovered that all was not well.
"I went back in and sat down with one of their doctors to go over all the results – about 100 of them," Mark recalls.
"He noted my statins were too strong and suggested I get my GP to alter them, which I did, and gave me some tips based on the deficiencies that were showing up, such as eating more oily fish.
"But the one big thing that stood out was my thyroid function being low. That was directly linked to a problem with the pituitary gland which wasn't showing up at that stage."
Dr Gary Smyth, medical director at Randox Health, also identified a significant drop in the level of a protein produced by Mark's prostate gland and decided to investigate further.
After running more advanced tests on Mark's blood, he found that his testosterone levels were low in the extreme and arranged for him to have an MRI scan.
The result of the scan showed that Mark was suffering with a pituitary tumour, which had grown to the size of a walnut, and was just one millimetre away from crushing his optic nerve.
"Mark was extremely lucky," says Dr Smyth. "He had no symptoms – no headaches, no facial pain or visual problems which would usually be caused by either direct pressure from the tumour or a change in hormone levels.
"While this meant Mark didn't suffer, it also meant that there were no warning signs pointing to the tumour. It was only caught because he had an in-depth health assessment."
Neurosurgeons at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast removed the tumour, which turned out to be benign.
Mark says: "They did an outstanding job and deserve full credit, as do the nursing staff, too.
"The surgeon operated up through my nose and sinuses and removed the tumour – at the size of a walnut, it dwarfed the pituitary gland itself, which is only the size of a bean.
"If it had continued to grow I would have started having headaches and vision distortion, and eventually could have lost my sight. Now, I just have to go for a yearly check-up to make sure it's not growing back."
Pituitary abnormalities are thought to affect between one in four or one in five people. The pituitary gland is a small oval shaped gland at the base of the brain. It's referred to as the 'master gland' because of the functions it controls in the growth hormones, the adrenal gland, the thyroid, the ovaries and testicles.
"If there is a problem with the pituitary gland it is possible that there will be problems in all of the other glands too," explains Dr Smyth.
"It is small but the part it plays in the body is massive. In cases like Mark's, where tumours arise, complex early diagnosis is the key to timely and targeted treatment."
Now with a clean bill of health, Mark is enjoying his retirement at his home in Lisburn, where he lives alone, and looking forward to future trips to see his family in Australia.
And if the phone rings from his casting agents, he'll be back like a shot on the Game Of Thrones set. "I answered an ad for the extras on the second series for the fun of it and wasn't allowed to shave or cut my hair from June to December so I'd look the part as a peasant," he laughs.
"I had a whole scene with Alfie Allen, Lily's brother, before he had the terrible torturing.
"He's a nice lad but he smokes too much.
"You're not allowed to talk to the actors in case you distract them when they're rehearsing or going over their lines but you can talk to them if they strike up a conversation.
"Alfie Allen asked me if I was cold, which I was. It's very windy on the north coast in October."
Mark has also played a pike harbourman in the phenomenally successful drama and was involved in rehearsals for the famous Red Wedding bloodbath in the last series, which saw the end of a clutch of strong leading characters and left fans reeling.
"I've read the Game Of Thrones books so I know what's going to happen – I knew Joffrey (the evil boy king) would be poisoned and I knew that another big character is about to die – I can't tell you who, though! All I can say is no-one is safe."
Mark's tests at Randox last year cost him approximately £650, money he would otherwise have spent on a holiday.
Now with his all-clear, he's off to Spain today for a walking break.
He says: "If a red light flashed up on your car, you'd bring it in to the garage and if they told you it will cost £450 to fix, you'd pay it. It is frightening that I was so close to going blind, without even knowing it; strange to think that a blood test saved my sight.
"I have the energy now of someone half my age.
"I feel like I have been given a second chance."
A healthy decision
Randox Health's medical experts assess the body at a molecular level, from one simple blood test. The UK's leading health assessment service, Randox uses technology based on 30 years of research and development to assess the blood samples taken at their centres in Down, Antrim and Londonderry.
Their scientific profiling identifies weaknesses and disorders in the blood, organs, bones, muscles, proteins and hormones. Randox Health's tests have been shown to prevent the onset of various diseases and can detect familial abnormalities, as well as tumour associated biomarkers.
As Randox Health's new adviser for the north west, Downtown broadcaster Caroline Fleck recently teamed up with its clinic at the Roe Park Resort to establish the first private health screening clinic for the area.
"The blood really is the body's encyclopaedia – almost everything we need to know about our health is there," says Caroline.
"From just one blood sample we check for illnesses such as diabetes and cardio vascular disease, search for genetic issues, scope for infections, root out fertility problems, even tell you how your health could change in future."
Randox Health checks are available from their clinics at the medi-spa in the Culloden Hotel, Co Down; Crumlin, Co Antrim and at the Roe Park Resort, Limavady, tel 087 0010 0010 or go to www.randoxhealth.com.