'I can't afford to let the diagnosis affect my life'
Lord Maginnis tells Laurence White that fears for his health have been exaggerated after he was diagnosed with cancer. His real battle is to improve medical services in Ulster
Unionist peer Lord Maginnis, who was recently told he has prostate cancer, is not amused by the sensational reports that he is "battling cancer" . He says: "I was a bit perturbed by those reports which were far too dramatic. If someone hadn't told me I was ill, I wouldn't know there was anything wrong with me."
His condition was discovered when a scan taken during a minor operation revealed the tumour.
"It was discovered totally accidentally," says Lord Maginnis, who turns 70 on Monday. "I now have to accept that I have got the proverbial prostate cancer - a condition which affects a large number of men in their later years."
He adds: "It has not affected my working life and I have got to be philosophical about it. I cannot afford to let something of this nature affect my life. People I work with expect me to turn up to things I do, such as chair committees or whatever. Thank God I am able to do that."
Lord Maginnis is to undergo treatment for his condition at the Institute of Oncology in Leeds. His treatment, called brachytherapy, will be overseen by leading specialist Dr David Bottomley, originally from Omagh.
It involves implanting small radioactive rods directly into the tumour and is a therapy commonly used to treat localised prostate cancer.
It is, however, a treatment not yet available in Northern Ireland.
Far from curtailing his work, the diagnosis of cancer has added vigour to his campaigning on health issues. The Ulster Unionist peer is best known for his comments on security issues - he was a member of the UDR for 10 years from 1971, leaving with the rank of major - but he has always maintained a strong interest in health matters.
In spite of his condition, Lord Maginnis is not in favour of a screening programme for prostate cancer, arguing that it is a disease many people will die with rather than from.
"A screening programme for prostate cancer would not be as productive as extending the screening process for breast cancer, for example. Screening for breast cancer does save lives by picking up the disease at its early stages," he says.
"Men who are concerned about prostate problems should have a blood test taken during their regular MOT health checks. If their PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels are through the roof, then they can have further investigations carried out."
PSA is a protein produced by prostate cells and high levels can be an indication of cancer. But benign conditions or infections can cause increased PSA levels.
Lord Maginnis is also in favour of preventative injections given to young girls to guard against cervical cancer in later life.
"There are some muddled thinking that giving them these injections will encourage immorality, but to my mind it is more immoral not to take steps to prevent cervical cancer. Promiscuity may be a factor in cervical cancer, but it is not for me to dictate to young ladies how they should behave.
"I also believe there may be some benefit in screening for bowel cancer, although I am not expert enough on the issue to be certain of the merit."
Although Lord Maginnis is being treated in Leeds, he has nothing but praise for cancer services in Northern Ireland.
"Brachytherapy may not be available in Northern Ireland at the moment, but I have no doubt that it will be introduced here in the future when specialists in the therapy are trained and facilities are available.
"Cancer treatment in Northern Ireland, under the leadership of Professor Paddy Johnston, has taken huge steps forward in recent times.
"The problem in Northern Ireland is that, while we have some of the best medical people in the world and top nurses, the administration of the Health Service has become top heavy.
"Under direct rule ministers, between 2,000 and 3,000 extra administrators were brought into the service. My party colleague, Michael McGimpsey, the new Health Minister, is determined to tackle this problem.
"He has taken a huge risk by saying that he will cut out administrative layers and carry the can personally for decisions made.
"Ministers usually like to have two or three layers of cushions between themselves and decisions on the ground.
"I believe that with people like him and Professor Johnston, we are going to make huge strides forward in health care. The Minister has shown great courage."
Meanwhile, undeterred by his own illness, Lord Maginnis is also hoping to make a difference in the care delivered to one group of people in the province.
He is chairing an independent review of autism services in Northern Ireland, aided by experts from the province, other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The aim is to improve diagnosis of the condition and deliver better co-ordinated services to people with autism and their families.
The review, he says, offers Northern Ireland the potential to have the best system in the UK for helping people with autism. The recommendations will be delivered to the Department of Health shortly.