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Cancer Focus NI chairperson Ivan McMinn: ‘You only pass this way once; if you can go through it helping people, that’s all the better’

His mother’s mantra of ‘If you can help someone, do it,’ has spurred Co Down man Ivan McMinn to help a number of cancer charities and good causes

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Inspiring: Chairperson of the NIPANC, Ivan McMinn. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Inspiring: Chairperson of the NIPANC, Ivan McMinn. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Supportive: Ivan McMinn. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Supportive: Ivan McMinn. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

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Inspiring: Chairperson of the NIPANC, Ivan McMinn. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

At age eight, Ivan McMinn completed his first sponsored 10-mile walk for The Ulster Cancer Foundation (now Cancer Focus NI) and half a century later, he is the charity’s chairperson.

His pancreatic cancer diagnosis a decade ago enhanced his determination to get more deeply involved with cancer charities. Ivan is also the chairperson of NIPANC (Northern Ireland Pancreatic Cancer) and also co-chaired the Steering Committee of the Northern Ireland Cancer Strategy.

Involved in high level strategic cancer related decision making in Northern Ireland, Ivan was involved in the 10-year cancer strategy which aims everyone here has timely access to diagnosis, treatment and care. For Ivan, patient centred cancer care is vital. “When I was approached to see if I would be willing to take on the co-chair of the steering group, I was told that this was a co-production,” he explains.

“My first question was what really does that mean? Is this getting people onto a panel that you can say you’ve talked to a cancer patient, or a group of cancer patients and you tick the box and don’t really listen to them or is it totally the other way?

“Is it that you have a real true outreach into a lived experienced group. You listen to what they say. You involve them at all levels of the strategy, and you have them the whole way through the process.

“That cancer strategy document that was released a couple of months ago by the Minister was a true example of co-production.

“In fact, it was the first real example of co-production in Northern Ireland, and I believe that in anything that is done going forward, that the best results would be if the cancer patient and the medics and the professionals come together to decide on the on the result.”

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In tandem with patient centred care is the provision of services.

“We’ve just finalised the process of local elections and it’s wonderful to hear our politicians talk with the need for a better health service. That is absolutely needed,” says Ivan.

“The facts, however, are that people are living longer. As a result of that, their needs can be far more complicated, when cancer strikes at a time when we have fewer surgeons, fewer doctors, fewer nurses and the likes to deal with increasing needs of care.

“We’ve all heard the stats that cancer will impact one out of two of us, so I really welcome those politicians’ statements that we’re going to fix our healthcare system, but that statement comes hand in hand with some very, very brave decisions which those politicians are going to have to take at some stage.”

With not all hospitals being able to be all things to all cancers or to all ailments, Ivan says we need to move to a position where we can create centres of excellence which are correctly staffed in a way to ensure that the patient will get the best possible treatment and thereby, enhance their chances of the best possible cancer diagnosis.

“Right now, that’s not the case,” he says. “When I was diagnosed, I wanted to get the best treatment. I wasn’t concerned about how far I had to travel to get the best treatment.

“Our politicians need to keep that clear objective getting the best possible outcomes for patients first and foremost in their minds whenever they’ve got to make those decisions about how and where cancer services are delivered to patients.

“If we adopt the status quo, we will not achieve that and at the end of this, the patient will not get the optimum results.

“Someday that patient may be their child or their parent and maybe that thought will help them in their decision making.

“The two years of Covid has had a massive impact on cancer services.

“If I look at the services today of the hepatobiliary team, that’s the team I owe my life to. It, because of Covid, has been displaced and is working at a number of centres right now.

“No matter where the application for that centre of excellence needs to be, that team needs to be brought back together as a unit to be able to bring that best possible service for cancer patients, who need their collective expertise together, not apart.

“That gives people like me the best possible outcome when it comes to cancer diagnosis.”

Ivan, a former senior bank official living in Belfast, was training for a marathon when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after presenting to doctors with jaundice.

He received a major surgery known as the Whipple procedure followed by eight months of chemotherapy.

Three years later, he was told the disease had returned and was inoperable, with only a 10% chance of more chemotherapy working.

After eight months of chemotherapy he was told the tumours were not visible; only 1% of people to survive the disease which claims the lives of over 260 people each year.

“Pancreatic cancer, in general terms there hasn’t been that much of a change in treatment over the last 40 years,” says Ivan when asked whether cancer treatment has developed since his initial diagnosis.

“That’s a terrible statement. That said, there are lots of beacons of hope, coming up from round the world of different
trials and different types of treatment, bubble therapy treatment, very, very targeted chemotherapy treatment that the signs
are good.

“But the key, without dwelling on pancreatic cancer, the key for the survival of any cancer is early diagnosis and the earlier the diagnosis can be made, the greater the chances for the patient.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a brain tumour or prostate cancer or any cancer.

“That is the holy grail. If you can get the early diagnosis and you don’t need the aggressive treatments, you possibly don’t need the aggressive surgery.

“The earlier in the chain that it can be caught and even going back to understanding each of our genes as to the likelihood of what we’re going to develop going forward. The further back we can go in the cancer journey, the better it is for the outcome on the other side.”

He calls his survival purely a response to the chemotherapy working.

“I am a living example, a thankful living example, of someone who has the utmost faith in the ability of the surgeons that we have, when they have a chance to operate, and also the power of chemotherapy when it has to be administered.

“I always try and encourage people to not look at a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence.

“The statistics unfortunately show that sometimes there’s not a good outcome but to believe that surgery can work, does work, and the chemo, while it is horrible, does work in many, many cases.

“That’s a message that I, without trying to paint a pink sky picture to some degree about cancer diagnosis.

“There’s always hope, and it depends on the circumstances. Chemos are becoming much more targeted, much less invasive.”

It must be life affirming to have come through it, but sobering having met others who did not.

“I thank God for every day,” says Ivan.

“You hear this thing, a guilt complex, and it is real. I’ve the privilege of speaking to many folks who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“A cancer patient can always have a deeper conversation with another cancer patient and maybe a medic can’t. One is clinical, the other is personal.

“I’ve had the privilege of speaking to many people that you say, are no longer here, and you think, why, these are much better people than I ever will be.

“I had the privilege over the last few years of speaking to a guy called Robbie Brightwell who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”

Robbie was the Great Britain team captain in the 1964 Olympic Games and his wife was Anne Packer. She won a gold medal in the 800m and a silver medal in 400 meters and Robbie won a silver medal in the 400m relay.

“While I never met him, I had a telephone relationship with him for over two years. Robbie passed away two months ago,” says Ivan.

“He phoned me to get inspiration and talk through about different Whipple procedures and I came off thinking I was inspired talking to him.

“It was total role reversal. That guilt complex, though I don’t try and dwell on it, it does impact.”

In June 2021, Ivan was awarded an MBE for services to charity and the community in Northern Ireland, an honour that he dedicated to his mother.

Though initially thinking it was a prank — sending the email from the Cabinet Office to his trash — he hopes the award can open doors to further knowledge and development.

“I really thought I had two choices after my cancer experience. I’d either put it all behind me and doing nothing with it or I could bring the learnings of what I’d experienced in the cancer arena with talking to other cancer patients with lived experience, patient to person, and also to help the medical profession better understand the world of a cancer patient from a human perspective.

“My mum’s mantra, it was an easy choice for me to do the latter, to try and do what I could.

“I don’t imagine anyone ever starts off with that quest, right, if I do that, in 20 years I’ll get an MBE. If you do, you’re probably in for a disappointment as somebody will work it out.

“To say I had any expectations of being awarded a MBE, they were just zero.

“Whatever I was trying to do and being involved in those cancer charities and other charities, I do that because A, I enjoy it and B, you’re trying to do some good. You only pass this way once; if you can go through it helping people, that’s all the better.”

It’s like, we say, the icing on a cake you’d already baked.

“I want to use the MBE in whatever way it opens doors to help even more going forward.

“It does come with a credibility and that credibility should be used in the right way to do exactly what I’ve been was trying to explain about, to be talking to those politicians,” he says.

“I’m aware there’s various things going on behind the scenes. The cancer strategy is one of them and the outcomes of that.

“There’s another review ongoing event which is entitled General Surgical Review.

“The aim of that is to ensure, it’s sort of similar to the cancer strategy, that the best elective and surgical care is made available to patients irrespective of what their postcode is.

“That is common across, both strategy/review and the cancer strategy, that if you have a BT9 or somewhere so far west of the province that your experience should be the same and it is absolutely not at this minute in time.”


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