Wife of rally champion Neil McCance says their last few months together were the greatest of their lives
Brave until the end, the 'gentleman of rallying' whose best years were last two he spent with his family
The wife of prominent rally champion Neil McCance has told how their last few months together before his death were the greatest of their lives.
Mr McCance was a former Irish Mitsubishi Challenge champion, with many other successes on circuits throughout the UK and Ireland.
The father-of-two – to Mark (13) and Melissa (9) – lost his battle against cancer earlier this month aged just 46.
The death of Mr McCance, widely regarded as "the gentleman of rallying", came just two years after the popular rugby and scouting enthusiast was given the all-clear from the disease.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at the family's Comber home, Neil's wife Tanya said his unwavering bravery was a source of strength following the loss of her soulmate.
"Neil's attitude was not 'why me', but 'why not me?'" she said.
"If you asked him, he would say the last two years of his life were the best. Our life together was fantastic.
"He made it the very best for me and the children. He never looked back, always forward.
"When he received the second cancer diagnosis and was told he couldn't rally again, he just took it in his stride."
Neil and Tanya were together since the age of 18 and were inseparable throughout their 28 years.
Born into a rally-loving family, the sport was in Neil's blood – and Tanya fully embraced her partner's passion.
She was by his side when he won his first major race, and again when he took part in his final event. Neil, a director at a Belfast steel company, was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009.
An operation to remove his right kidney appeared to have been successful, with Neil taking part in the Circuit of Ireland just six weeks after surgery.
"After his one-year scan we had the all-clear," explained Tanya.
"We thought that was us, we can draw a line under it now."
However, the McCance family was dealt a blow in 2011.
Neil was involved in a serious crash during a race and complained of back pain afterwards.
Following medical examinations, he was given the news that the cancer had returned.
Unable to continue in the sport he loved, Neil purchased a boat and the family spent prolonged breaks together in Fermanagh.
"When you get that kind of prognosis it can be difficult to battle through the dark days," said Tanya.
"We thought he would have more time, but we had the most fantastic two years.
"For Neil, it was about making the best of the time, trying to stay in the day.
"We had the hard conversations too – he didn't bury his head – but his bravery made it very much easier for us as a family."
Tanya read a eulogy put together by Neil in the months prior to his death.
More than 750 people attended the funeral, with Mark and Melissa also taking part in the service.
Confined to a wheelchair, Neil still summoned the strength to deliver a speech at a New Year's Eve party in the McCance home, just days before he passed away, on January 5.
Throughout Neil's fight the family were fully supported by Cancer Focus, a charity which offers guidance to those affected and their loved ones.
Last September Neil and Tanya organised a fundraising trek through the Mournes, which raised £15,000 for the charity.
Tanya said that she intends to make it an annual event as a legacy to her husband.
"Cancer Focus walked with us the whole way along our journey," Tanya said.
"When things just weren't going so well they were there for us.
"We want Neil to leave behind a legacy."
'He was like a magnet, with an infectious smile, and people would be drawn to him'
At times the pain was visible, but for the most there was a smile on the face of Tanya McCance as she reflected on nearly three decades with her soulmate, rally champion Neil.
The couple were childhood sweethearts, dating from the age of just 18.
Rally driving was in Neil's blood. His grandfather and father both loved the sport and he was engrossed from an early age.
Tanya said that she, too, became a fan, accompanying Neil to watch him race across the UK and Ireland.
She was alongside him for his first victory, and fittingly, was his co-driver as he crossed the line in what was his last ever race. Prior to that Neil had been involved in a heavy crash, during which the car he was driving flipped over.
Medical examinations on his back afterwards led to the devastating news his cancer had returned.
That signalled the end of his racing career, but he was determined to savour one last challenge behind the wheel.
It came at Kirkistown in 2012 and a large crowd of friends and family were there.
At the time Neil said: "I didn't want my last memory of driving the Mitsubishi to be when we were sliding on our roof down a forest road in Fermanagh.
"I wanted to do one more rally and my consultant agreed I could do the Kirkistown event because it is relatively flat and smooth with no big jumps.
"Only a handful of people knew it was my last rally and it was a very emotional day, especially as my wife Tanya got to co-drive for me.
"I didn't drive particularly well but I finished – 13th as it happens and second in the production category – so it wasn't so bad."
That summed up his attitude to the sport he loved, his family said.
"Neil was involved in rallying for 25 years," said Tanya.
"But when he was told he couldn't do it anymore, he didn't hanker for it.
"That was his way. He didn't look back."
While he revelled in testing himself on the track against his rivals, he was the first person at the scene to help if they ran into difficulties.
Tanya recounted numerous occasions when he stopped his car to come to the aid of a stricken competitor.
"It wasn't all about the winning to Neil," she said.
"He just loved the sport and the people involved were attracted to him. He was like a magnet in everything he did, including the scouts and rugby.
"He had an infectious smile and people were drawn to him.
"When I think of Neil that's what I think of, his smile."
When he could no longer race, Neil and the McCance family spent their free time on his boat in Fermanagh.
"That gave him a new lease of life," said Tanya.
"The scout troop was very similar.
"When he became involved in that it had about 15 scouts and it is currently one of the biggest with around 60.
"He was so proud of that."