Former GAA player Brian Magennis had never known ill health other than the common cold or sports injury until an out-of-the-blue pancreatic cancer diagnosis shattered his world in 2020.
The 51-year-old from Poyntzpass, near Newry says he has Covid-19 to thank for being at home which made him pay more attention to the symptoms and phone his doctor straightaway.
Now, the pancreatic cancer survivor and latest Board Member of NI’s only local pancreatic cancer charity NIPANC, is throwing his weight behind a powerful local campaign to coincide with World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month during November.
The #TimeMatters campaign not only hopes to raise awareness of the disease among the general public but is also encouraging medical professionals to get to grips with the subtleties of its notoriously difficult to diagnose symptoms.
Recent figures show that 280 people in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with the disease each year and the numbers are increasing.
Known as ‘the silent killer’ because symptoms are hard to pick up, pancreatic cancer survival rates are very poor with only 1% of people surviving a diagnosis past 10 years and 5% past five.
Taking early action is crucial and Brian is grateful that in the midst of a pandemic he received treatment on time.
Incredibly just two days after a life-saving operation, all surgery in Northern Ireland was cancelled due to the spread of Covid-19.
Brian, who is well known for playing GAA for 20-years for O’Hanlon’s in Poyntzpass, now works as a commercial manager for a large wholesale and retail company and is married to Margaret (53), a hairdresser. The couple has two sons, Daniel (18) and Ben (16).
He recalls how in October 2020 his symptoms presented as dark urine and pale, hard to flush and smelly stools: “It was unusual. I left it for about three days before I thought I need to get this looked at.
“It was during Covid, and I was working from home in Poyntzpass.
“That’s why I got it checked. Normally I would have been working in Dublin and probably would have ignored it but because I was at home it made it easy to call the doctor. In that respect I had Covid-19 to thank for helping to save my life.
“I gave the symptoms to the GP over the phone. It was a locum doctor who first took the call. She said, ‘it doesn’t look great’ and arranged for blood tests.”
Things moved very quickly after that – crucial to survival of pancreatic cancer.
Brian had blood tests the next day and two days later was sent to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry for a scan.
He recalls: “There was no mention of pancreatic cancer at that stage, but my bloods were off the scale. I knew something was wrong. I went home and told Margaret and we thought it might be a problem with the gall bladder. We weren’t overly concerned.”
Brian was admitted to hospital for his scan and two days later was told that he was being red flagged to the Belfast Trust as something was showing in his pancreas.
He was sent home to wait, an agonising time as he recalls: “It was an awful evening. I remember it because Armagh and Derry were playing in the championships which was live on TV.
“The weather was awful, very stormy. Time stood still. I had that dreaded feeling of knowing life is about to change but still not knowing it was pancreatic cancer but that something was terribly wrong.”
The following week he had another scan at Craigavon Hospital and in early November was called to see a consultant in the Mater Hospital in Belfast.
At that point the scans had picked up a tumour, but it couldn’t be confirmed as cancer.
Because the tumour was too close to blood vessels Brian was told surgery wasn’t an immediate option and it was suggested he have chemo to shrink it and then hopefully surgery.
He says: “The priority then was to get a stent put in because the tumour was in the head of the pancreas and blocking the bile duct.
“By then I was jaundiced and that could kill me so the priority was the stent and during that process they would take a biopsy.”
The biopsy confirmed his worst fears that he had pancreatic cancer: “I knew nothing about it,” he admits, adding: “The only thing I knew was if you were picking one cancer, you wouldn’t pick this one. I had an underlying sense of dread. That’s how I can express it best.”
Brian was relieved when following a Hepatobiliary Multi-Disciplinary Meeting (MDM) involving five medics, it was considered the surgery should go ahead. It saved his life.
He says: “I was elated and went from a position of despair to hope. I was eligible for what is known as the Whipple’s procedure. They talked me through it and the seriousness of it and then I signed up for it. I was given leaflets and literature, but I didn’t read any of it.
“My mindset was this is happening. This is serious. That was the last Thursday in November, and I had my operation the following Monday. From diagnosis to surgery was exactly four weeks and that was in the middle of Covid. Two days after that all surgery was shut down.”
The Whipple’s procedure is a complex operation used to treat tumours and other conditions in the pancreas, small intestine, and bile ducts. It involves removing the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder, and the bile duct.
Brian faced a long recovery in hospital after the surgery and was finally allowed home on December 19 in time for Christmas.
Twelve weeks after surgery he began chemotherapy which lasted for seven months and was relieved in December 2021 when a scan revealed there was no cancer.
He says: “That was a feeling of total elation. At the end of this month, I will be three years post diagnosis without any recurrence.
“I have gone back to work, but the journey is ongoing. You think you are better and then you might get a delayed reaction.
“The trauma I’ve gone through from a medical perspective and work perspective with my whole life turned on its head takes a lot of getting used to.”
But not long after Brian was given the all-clear and starting to get his life back on track, his family was dealt another devastating blow when in January of this year his sister-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Tragically hers was not picked up on time and she passed away in August.
Claire Martin (49) from Drumintee in South Armagh was married to Joe and had two sons Cathal (22) and Caolan (13).
Claire had been working on her fitness and after a training session thought she had hurt her back.
Mid-back pain radiating around to the stomach is another classic symptom of pancreatic cancer.
However, Claire went to a physio for a few weeks and thought it was helping.
She was also losing weight and was ‘looking great’ but the weight loss wasn’t down to her fitness regime or diet.
It was illness. She wasn’t suitable for the Whipple’s procedure and was given palliative treatment.
The shock of her death on August 13 of this year has left Brian struggling with survivor’s guilt.
He says: “She wasn’t eligible for the Whipple’s procedure. They gave her some treatment and the chemo made her very sick. She was hospitalised a few times over three or four months.
“She was given palliative care from an early stage as the treatment didn’t work.
“She went downhill from June and died on August 13. Her family is absolutely devastated.
“It has been a double blow for our family with Claire’s death. In many ways that has given me an added layer of fortitude to not want to give up. I still want to be here in 10 or 30-years-time and that is where my mindset is.
“I do have survivor’s guilt. I ask myself why Claire and not me. I would swap places but then equally, it was not me for a reason. I’ve been spared for some reason. I’m lucky.
“I challenge myself as someone who has been through pancreatic cancer why I didn’t notice it. I was a pancreatic cancer sufferer and survivor. These fleeting thoughts come and go. I thought knowing what the symptoms of pancreatic cancer were, I should have known she had the illness.
“I was diagnosed before I was 50 and Claire was 49. Pancreatic Cancer is not an old people’s disease.
“I have to be strong now for my wife and for my boys and the wider family. Your focus changes and you just have to get on with it. I need to be there to support Joe and their two boys. There are other things that are now to the fore.”
Now on the Board of NIPANC, Brian is determined to do what he can to help raise awareness and funds so other families don’t have to go through what his has.
He adds: “I am looking forward immensely to working with NIPANC. I hope that I can use my relationships and experience to add value but also to increase awareness of the pancreatic cancer and its symptoms in the wider public arena.
If I could make an appeal, it is to members of the public and the medical community. Please familiarise yourself with the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. If you are a patient be persistent in seeking the earliest possible diagnosis. If you are a medic, early detection referral and treatment is vital to survival.”
Find out more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer here