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Inspirational Antrim gran defiant in face of killer condition that took her mum, brother and sister

Una raising awareness of mystery lung illness that claims more than NI's roads

By Claire McNeilly

A brave grandmother-of-two who has been given three years to live after being diagnosed with an incurable illness has vowed to beat the odds and live longer for the sake of her family.

Una McMillan said she was devastated when she recently learned she was suffering from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) - a disease that has claimed her mother, sister and brother.

But rather than accepting the diagnosis without a fight, the 65-year-old retired nurse is now funnelling her efforts into raising funds and awareness for the condition, which affects hundreds of people in Northern Ireland.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from the Ballycastle home she shares with her husband Tommy (64), a former fire officer, Una said she was determined to do what she can to make a difference.

"I know what's ahead of me - I watched my mother, brother and sister suffer and die from this disease - but I've put those thoughts away in a box, as otherwise I couldn't carry on," she said.

"Life expectancy with this illness is three years but I'm very optimistic that I'll still be here in five years' time. I'm working really hard to keep myself fit so I can be around as long as possible.

"I won't let this diagnosis hold me back. I don't want sympathy. I want to raise funds for research into the disease because there are more sufferers in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK."

The mother-of-three, who is originally from west Belfast and lived in England for 30 years before moving to the Co Antrim coast, said she was completely shocked when the results of a CT scan revealed scarring on the lungs, one of the key early signs that someone is suffering from the life-limiting illness.

In fact her diagnosis was accidental; she was intending to raise awareness about IPF and had only gone to the doctor for a routine check-up shortly after her 71-year-old sister Eileen's death on December 30, 2015. "I lost my mum (Frances) in 1998 when she was 73, and then my 56-year-old brother James passed away on Boxing Day in 2003," Una said. "Eileen and I spent a lot of time together when she was ill. She lived in Belfast and she liked to stay in Ballycastle some weekends.

"We talked a lot about IPF being in the family and she urged me to get checked out but I've always been fairly fit and I've never smoked, so I didn't honestly think I was at risk. But I missed Eileen terribly after she died - I still miss her every single day -and I decided to visit the doctor."

Una added: "That's when I found out that I had it too. I couldn't believe it. IPF is a silent killer. It just creeps up on you." After digesting the awful news Una then had to tell her children Stephen (46), a teacher; Colin (45), a project manager, and Louise (43), a cafe owner. Stephen and Louise live in England, while Colin is based in Oman with his children Calum (17) and 11-year-old Ellie.

"I was angry at first, and then very, very upset," she said.

"I do have bad days when my breathing isn't great but I'm working hard. My husband and children have been very supportive. They're worried, but they're very proud of me too."

As well as battling the symptoms of the disease herself, Una is fighting to raise awareness of a dangerous condition that she claims is underfunded and under-researched.

Despite the fact 32,000 people are living with the disease in the UK, its causes are unknown and there is not thought to be a genetic trigger. The only hope of beating the disease is via a lung transplant, however, as most patients are over 65 or diagnosed too late, this rarely occurs.

What Una wants to do now, though, is to put the illness on the map and she is organising fundraising drives, starting with a cycle ride around Lough Neagh on Easter Monday.

She will attempt to ride 15 miles herself and will be joined by friends and family, some of whom will cycle the lough's full circumference, to generate as much awareness as possible.

That will be followed by a 10K charity run in June and a fundraising event in Ballycastle Golf Club in September.

"My head says I can manage to cycle on April 17, but to be honest I don't know if my body will be up to it," she said.

"But I intend to push myself as far as I can because I'm fighting for my mum, brother and sister and for everybody else who is suffering, and hopefully a cure will be found for this."

Irene Johnstone, local head of the British Lung Foundation, said that people here are more likely to die from IPF than in a road accident.

"Though most people have never heard of it, IPF claimed 679 lives in Northern Ireland between 2008 and 2012 - far more than the 384 road deaths between that period," she said.

"It also takes more lives year-on-year than many well-known cancers including ovarian, skin cancer and leukaemia. IPF causes continuous scarring of the lungs, making it increasingly difficult for a person to breathe. It has no known cause, no cure, and average life expectancy after diagnosis is just three years."

Una's fundraising page: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/UnaMcMill

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