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Survivor Stories - Ivan McMinn

Calling his two young children into his study to tell them he had pancreatic cancer, is one Ivan McMinn will never forget

Pancreatic cancer survivor and retired corporate banker, Ivan McMinn says the day he called his two small children Saskia (12) and Nicholas (14) into his study to tell them he had pancreatic cancer, is one he will never forget, doesn’t want to repeat nor would wish on anyone.

With increasing cases of pancreatic cancer in Northern Ireland and approximately 280 people now diagnosed each year, what Ivan’s family faced is becoming more typical with more children and young people losing a parent or guardian to the disease.

Ivan, (61) is now in his 12th year of survival, making him among only 1% of people to survive a diagnosis of this deadly disease past ten years. Even more remarkably, he has survived the illness twice.

Ivan, a Trustee of NI’s only pancreatic cancer charity, NIPANC dedicates his life to making a difference. Through the charity’s large-scale #TimeMatters campaigns, he is determined to raise

  • Awareness of the symptoms of the disease

  • Funds to invest in critical research and

  • Support individuals and families

Until the recently announced appointment of fellow pancreatic cancer survivor, Newry man, Brian Magennis to the NIPANC Board, he was the only survivor among the group of voluntary Trustees; most of whom have lost a loved one to the illness. His survivor’s guilt weighs heavily but drives him to take a tough and uncompromising stand against this ‘Silent Killer.’

During Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Ivan is sharing his story along with four other survivors as a symbol of hope to others. The stories show how, by knowing the symptoms, seeking early diagnosis and treatment and with best medical practice in rapid referral from primary (GP) to secondary care (hospital); people can and do survive pancreatic cancer.

Ivan said: “I’m married to Judi with two grown-up children, Nicholas (26) and Saskia (24), love life, am a glass half full person and thank God every day for my survival. I was 49, fit and training for the 2012 London Marathon, when trouble hit.

“My family life, career and everything else was right on track. Then bang. In 2011, I started feeling a bit off. I was training for a few events and things just didn’t feel right. I had a pain in my mid-back, that was coming through to my tummy and I felt generally unwell, so I took myself to the doctor.

“I’m not usually one to attend my GP but I decided it was time to go. I had symptoms I now recognise as pancreatic cancer but left the surgery with some tablets for an acidic tummy. I was also suffering from a horrible internal itch.

“Thankfully, I went back. About five months later I was jaundiced, and the diagnosis was much simpler. I was immediately sent to the RVH for further investigation. My urine was very, very dark, my bowel movements were really quite pale and floating.

“When I first felt I really wasn’t feeling just 100%, I probably delayed for a while to see if it would go away but eventually it came to the point where I knew something wasn’t quite right, so I took myself to the GP. I would now urge anyone with these symptoms or feeling that something isn’t just right, not to delay.

“When I was admitted to the Royal, I was kept in over the weekend, had an ultra-sound, a CT scan and on the Monday morning a consultant took me into an interview room and told me I had the disease. Three weeks after I met this incredible Surgeon, MrTom Diamond who ‘plumbed me up’ by taking me through the Whipple’s procedure. He removed the growth in my pancreas, my gallbladder, my duodenum and somehow joined me all up so that it all works again, quite an incredible man to whom I owe my life.”

“From diagnosis through to total recovery was a period of about eight months. It was a fairly strenuous chemotherapy programme and then it was just time for the body to recover. I was incredibly happy with the process and the NHS care I received. The speed of referral and treatment was just incredible the whole way through. From diagnosis to treatment was three weeks from diagnosis to surgery.

Following chemotherapy which ended in August, Ivan, a keen golfer, got on with life and kept himself fit; fitness playing a crucial role in surviving the disease and surgery. In April 2013, he completed the London Marathon and again in April 2014 finishing in three hours 48 minutes raising £204,000 for cancer.

“Three years later in Lithuania running a half marathon, I received a call from my consultant to tell me my blood readings were not good.

“This time there was no surgical solution. I had a 10% chance that chemo would slow down what had been found. Eight months later the tumours were not visible. Since then, I have ongoing check-ups every three months and thankfully all good so far. I’m forever thankful but never complacent.”

Retired surgeon, Mr Tom Diamond is now President of NIPANC and works alongside Ivan and the Board in a determined effort to support the charity’s three objective, raising awareness, funds and supporting families.

Mr Diamond said: “Early diagnosis, in Ivan’s case helped to save his life. The disease had presented very early for him in that he became jaundiced early, but a lot of patients have the cancer located in a position where they don’t present early. They may have very non-specific symptoms for quite a long period before it’s diagnosed.

“Ivan presented in a fairly typical kind of a way that the majority of pancreatic cancer patients present. He was generally feeling unwell for several weeks and even up to two to three months and it wasn’t until he developed very definite symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer such as internal itch, jaundice, change in colour of his urine and change in colour of his bowel movements that he knew there was something very significantly wrong.

“Patients can survive pancreatic cancer if its diagnosed early enough but the treatment involves a major surgical procedure usually followed by a prolonged period of chemotherapy and it’s advantageous to the patient if they are as physically fit as Ivan was. He was a gentleman who had been training every day, so he was very physically fit and very robust in terms of going through this very major ordeal.

Ivan said he hopes sharing his story will lead to generating awareness of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and improve the odds of a timely diagnosis for those who get the disease.

He said: “It’s vital we reach every person in NI and the medical community to reinforce our #Time Matters message to raise awareness of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and the need for urgent diagnosis and treatment.

“Earlier diagnosis needs to become a reality, not just an objective, and in so doing will increase the numbers of patients who are suitable for surgery resulting in lives being saved. Saving lives from Pancreatic Cancer is our ultimate aim. In short early diagnosis leads to better prognosis.”

“As someone 12- years post-diagnosis, I am living proof of that need for increased awareness of symptoms, early diagnosis, cutting back waiting times and improved treatment pathways.

“Though those years I have met and talked with many pancreatic cancer patients and my summary of those meetings and chats is very simple – more of those folks who received an early diagnosis and treatment are still meeting and talking with me than the ones who didn’t – quite simply, this is a life and death matter.”

Ivan McMinn MBE is also the Chairperson of Cancer Focus NI.

Please familiarise yourself about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer here

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