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Northern Ireland cancer survivors tell their stories for World Cancer Day

To mark World Cancer Day, we hear from three survivors from Northern Ireland

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Helena McCambridge (top left), Ivan McMinn  (bottom left) and Shauneen Brown (right) tell their stories

Helena McCambridge (top left), Ivan McMinn (bottom left) and Shauneen Brown (right) tell their stories

Helena McCambridge (top left), Ivan McMinn (bottom left) and Shauneen Brown (right) tell their stories

If you were diagnosed with cancer in the Seventies, the outlook was bleak, with less than a quarter of patients surviving. But with advances in early diagnosis, tests, surgery, medication and radiotherapy techniques, those odds have been turned around, with half of cancer patients now surviving at least 10 years.

Oesophageal cancer - diagnosed two years ago

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Successful recovery: Helena McCambridge

Successful recovery: Helena McCambridge

Kevin Scott

Successful recovery: Helena McCambridge

Retired nurse Helena McCambridge (61), from Holywood and married to Charlie, was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer two years ago and has undergone surgery. Her parents both died from oesophageal cancer.

When her mum was diagnosed 30 years ago, they didn't have the treatments they have now, she says. While her mum underwent radiotherapy, it proved ultimately unsuccessful.

"My dad was inoperable by the time he was presented. He was a very stoical man but it got him in the end," she says.

Helena noticed her first symptoms two years ago when food became stuck in her throat on a couple of occasions.

"I saw a GP within 48 hours and 10 days later I was in the hospital getting tests," she says.

"Once is okay, but if it happens twice, you need to get it checked to see if there is something wrong," she says. "Cancer is like having a friend in your group that you don't realise is an enemy. It can hide in your body and by the time you present it is too late. So I thought I had better get it checked."

Helena underwent surgery to remove her oesophagus and part of her stomach.

"It took about a year to 18 months to fully recover. But I'm great, and I've just gone back to doing everything I was doing before," she says.

"I'm so pleased that I went early and my message to everybody is to catch it early - go and get it checked out.

"When my mother had it, there was very little they could do for oesophageal cancer, but there are so many things they can do now."

Pancreatic cancer - diagnosed eight years ago

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Winning battle: Ivan McMinn

Winning battle: Ivan McMinn

Stephen Hamilton

Winning battle: Ivan McMinn

Retired corporate banker Ivan McMinn (57), from Belfast, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eight years ago. He is married to Judy and they have two children, Nick (22) and Saskia (20).

"I lost my dad to mouth and stomach cancer when I was seven, and I watched my mum bring up a one-year-old and a seven-year-old on her own," he says.

"My brother was diagnosed five years ago with bowel cancer and I had my own diagnosis when I was 49. They were all different and apparently not linked."

Ivan was training for the 2012 London Marathon when he first noticed symptoms of general unwellness, including stomach and back pain. He was put on tablets for the stomach symptoms, but it was only when he returned four months later with slight symptoms of jaundice that the cancer was picked up.

"I was admitted to the Royal Victoria that day and three days later I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The good news was that the CT scan seemed to suggest it was in the right area that surgery might be possible. I had surgery three weeks later and thankfully they were able to perform Whipple's procedure which only 15-20% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are suitable for."

The surgery was followed with eight months of chemotherapy and following his recovery Ivan got back into training straight away.

"I ran the 2013 and 2014 London Marathons and in 2014 I raised £204,000 for cancer charities.

"Cancer has slowed me down and it delayed a few things but it didn't stop me.

"I was going to give myself every chance to get through. I lost my dad when I was seven and I looked at our kids at 12 years old and 14 years old and I was absolutely determined that any human thing I could bring to this I would do, whether it was keeping myself as fit as possible or by thinking positively around it."

The cancer returned in 2015 and this time it was inoperable, but Ivan underwent 12 sessions of chemotherapy which proved successful.

"The chemotherapy programme was a much more powerful and targeted chemotherapy programme to the one I'd gone through four years earlier, and that advancement was only possible through research," Ivan says.

"I am absolutely hooked on to the importance of ongoing research. There is lots more to do and the survival rates are still really poor for pancreatic cancer. Last year in Northern Ireland just under 300 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and last year just under 300 people died of pancreatic cancer. 75% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die between three and six months of diagnosis - after five years, survival rates are in the region of 5% and, after 10 years, survival rates are around 1%.

"I am just over eight years past diagnosis and I can only be incredibly thankful for what I've been given. My story is a positive one compared to the 98% of others eight years from diagnosis. I want to use that message wherever I can to promote research and awareness of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

"I am absolutely determined to do what I can to assist in efforts to improve cancer survival rates across all cancers in Northern Ireland - I'll play my small part."

Oesophageal cancer - diagnosed three years ago

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Staying upbeat: Shauneen Brown

Staying upbeat: Shauneen Brown

Staying upbeat: Shauneen Brown

Shauneen Brown (44), from Lurgan, was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer three years ago and underwent chemotherapy and surgery. Her parents both died of lung cancer. Recently medically retired from the civil service, she married her "rock" Diarmaid (34) in New York in August.

She says cancer has been a huge part of her life, as it has claimed the lives of many people in her wider family as well as her parents.

"It's always been there in the background but they were all different kinds of cancer," she says.

"My symptoms really just came out of the blue. It was a Bank Holiday weekend and we were preparing for a barbecue. I grabbed something to eat and it stuck in my throat and I started to choke.

"A couple of days later it happened again and a few days later I started to hiccup. It was about two weeks before I went to the doctor. She gave me antacid but she could see I was quite anxious and referred me for a scope."

Shauneen had private healthcare through her job and was able to get examined within two weeks.

"At that stage I was having trouble swallowing and I was hiccuping, but other than that I felt well and didn't have any concerns. They did a biopsy and found oesophageal cancer," she says.

"Because the treatment has such a bad rate of success - that if you are not diagnosed early enough it's not curable - you have to wait for weeks for scans to see how far on it is and how much it has spread. Mine was still small enough.

"Then I had to get three rounds of chemotherapy and they went ahead with the surgery. I was diagnosed in September and I didn't go for surgery until March."

The tumour was in the middle of the oesophagus and the surgery removed the entire tract but left her stomach intact.

"When they told me, I thought, 'How can you live without an oesophagus?' They removed it and pulled up the stomach to replace it. I did have a leak and ended up having to go back to ICU for weeks," Shauneen says.

"I wasn't able to drink fluids for about eight weeks - I was on a feeding tube at the time. You don't think you're going to get through, but at the end of the day you come out the other side and it's all good.

"Most people don't get diagnosed as quickly and aren't able to get the surgery. I can't eat 100% and I can't lie on my back - there are silly things that will never be the same, but I'd take that any day to still be here, for sure."

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