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Cancer sufferer Colin McAlpin's moving account of battle to beat disease

In this moving account, written from his hospital bed, Colin McAlpin tells how, together with his medical team, he's determined to beat his illness, while daughter Heidi reflects on its impact on their family

Colin McAlpin with his granddaughter Scarlett
Colin McAlpin with his granddaughter Scarlett

By Colin McAlpin

I have cancer. In the great scheme of things, it is of no importance. Tens of thousands also have cancer in more than 200 strands. It is, of course, of great importance to them. But not to me.

Cancer, as I see him, deserves no upper/case 'C' for he is merely a puffed-chest bully who strides the world with false self-importance thinking he is frightening us into whimpering submission. His fear is that, one day, he will be wiped out.

I have cancer, I know what I have, and if he thinks I am an easy target he has a fight on his hands.

My c sneaked up at the beginning of the year and the cowardly devil came in the disguise of a constantly dripping nose.

But this was February and I told myself that it was the flu. It didn't improve, so I visited the local clinic, who told me it was "probably" the flu.

Then my right shoulder, elbow and arm became painful. So painful that I returned to the clinic - to the surprise of the receptionist, as I have never been one who races to the doctor crying about a snagged nail - where I was told it was "probably" tennis elbow.

Strange that, I thought, as I last played Wimbledon in 1951. It was actually so painfully weak that I required two hands to lift a cup of tea.

My runny nose and painful right arm tolerated each other for a couple of miserable weeks and we took ourselves back to where it was finally agreed that it might "probably" be something else and a hospital visit was scheduled.

And so began, for me, a most revealing and intriguing experience.

I found myself in that most magnificent of hospitals, the Belfast City, where I was put through a rough couple of weeks of X-rays, scans, injections, transfusions and endos - don't ask, you really do not wish to know - being, understandably, told no instant opinions about what I might actually have until the results were in. Meanwhile, more scans, etc followed.

I appreciate the reluctance of doctors to declare swift opinions in these litigious days, when someone declaring he is "offended" at having to pass a picture of the Queen in his Government office gets £10,000.

But while we waited until the results were in, I knew what I had: I had c. I surprised myself by being so calm, stoic even, about it.

I ended up by telling the doctor what I had - or was at least fairly convinced of it. He smiled and said he figured I had known for some time.

c figured he had me, but he was wrong on several fronts. I know I cannot cure myself, but I was getting to know the team gathering around and I trusted them totally. I placed myself entirely in their care and together we prepared ourselves for what lay ahead.

I know the thought of c does scare most of us. We are faced with an unknowing void of churning emotions and anxieties, but it is only c and we must summon the courage to fight the rotting chancer.

So, I found myself in the hands of the most caring, warm-hearted, endlessly helpful and upliftingly funny professors, doctors, specialists and - here a loud drum roll is required - nurses. There is no nurse quite like a nurse working in the Belfast City Hospital Cancer Centre.

They have been chosen specifically to come to the c unit from everywhere to help us. As well as from here, I have already found staff from the West Indies, China, Jamaica, Kenya and several from the Republic.

Well, we all know they're here stealing our jobs... you wouldn't last five minutes doing what they do, you'd be outside throwing your guts up.

All my Claires, Janes, Marias, Beths, Irish (yes, my jolly Irish is actually from India) are amazing. Here, a quick aside: would all the fat-rumped MLAs please get back to work, or come to the City to meet my team, and start supporting them.

Hospitals have their own unique pulse, their own rhythm. A couple of days ago I was awake at 3.45am and the sound of a trolley being trundled along the corridor, the sound of distant chatter, even laughter, the mysterious flashing lights and ping-pongs of alarm drifted to me.

When the ward came alive, one of my fellow patients actually complained about the trolley noise. I pointed out that it was almost certainly a nurse rushing to try to save someone's life. The next time it might be his. That sound fills me with confidence, as does the sound of a nurse's squeaky shoes!

Some of their stories are inspiring. One morning I awoke to find a young nurse at the side of my bed. She looked like a schoolgirl on her way to sixth-form hockey.

We got chatting and she revealed she had recently returned from a gap year. In New York, she became bored, found a newspaper advert for trained nurses to join a team in the Amazon jungle. She got an interview and spent nine months looking after a recently discovered tribe.

Another teaches children with disabilities in her spare time. Spare time? What spare time? She is constantly wheeling a trolley along a corridor.

These nurses do it because, as one said: "We want to help people." Simple, to the point, quite obvious. They choose to do one of medicine's most demanding and emotionally draining jobs. Would we? Would our MLAs (no, they can't even do their own jobs)?

This has been my way of thanking - and, yes, praising - my team. If you are slumped in front of some witless "reality" TV show, have you ever thought of better things to offer the world?

I have c, you might also have c, but he is now as uncertain of his future as we are. He doesn't have a team, we have a team and if he's up for a fight, bring it on. We are not afraid of his vain chest-thumping.

Please support the Macmillan nurses

My daughter Heidi posted the news of my 'c' on Facebook and I was overwhelmed at the number of well-wishes and prayers, so much so that, for the first time since I openly faced what had happened to me, I shed tears.

Not for myself, but for the many kind and loving friends I really had. I have not appreciated how caring they are.

Even more moving was the discovery of their generous donations to the wonderful Macmillan nurses in my name. We know Macmillan nurses from their TV adverts about their delicious-looking coffee mornings.

So, now my granddaughter Scarlett is organising her own such fundraising morning. Friends and family will be kept informed via email, Facebook, word-of-mouth, or by simple old-fashioned gossip.

Please support Macmillan in the many needs they require. Contact them via www.macmillan.org.uk, or telephone 0808 808 0000.

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