Rare survivor of pancreatic cancer welcomes new groundbreaking research
It is among the most hard-to-treat cancers but thanks to major new research funded by Cancer Focus NI, pancreatic cancer patients have renewed hope, say survivor Ivan McMinn and oncologist Dr Richard Turkington
RETIRED Belfast banker Ivan McMinn is thankful to be the "one per cent guy" – the guy diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eight years ago and today a rare survivor of this all-too-often silent but deadly disease which claims the lives of more than 200 people each year in Northern Ireland.
It is not a title he ever expected, although, being rather good with numbers (he is a former Head of Corporate Banking and Acquisition with Danske Bank), the father-of-two lightly points out that, more precisely, he is closer to the "2 per cent guy" – going by official statistics.
"One per cent of people with pancreatic cancer survive for 10 years and five per cent for five years, so I am somewhere in between," he says. "But, whatever, I am definitely the fortunate guy. The statistics make for grim reading; there is really only one way they can go – and that is up."
Thankfully, that much-needed turnaround may just be in the process of starting, thanks to a major £300,000 investment announced by Cancer Focus NI on World Cancer Day on Tuesday, to be used for pioneering research at Queen's University Belfast into pancreatic and oesophageal cancers, which jointly kill more than 420 people annually in the north.
The research, which will concentrate on the role of immunotherapy in treatment, will be led by Dr Richard Turkington, oncologist and cancer researcher at Queen's. It was launched by the charity alongside its new Legacy campaign which is urging people to leave a gift in their will to fund research to help cancer patients in the future.
"I am passionate about research into cancer, particularly pancreatic cancer where the survival rates haven't improved in 40 years," says Ivan, who works with NIPanC (Northern Ireland Pancreatic Cancer group) which supports patients and their families affected by the disease. "Research is making a real difference to lives and I am testimony to that."
Ivan's story began like many others: with what he thought was a routine trip to the doctor's surgery with a bit of back pain, sore tummy and "just feeling a bit off form" while in the middle of training for the 2012 London Marathon – ironically, to raise funds for Cancer Focus.
He was given tablets to treat an 'acidic tummy', but four months later was back again, this time presenting with a "violent, internal itch", linked with jaundice. Within an hour, he was despatched to the Royal Victoria Hospital with an obstructive jaundice diagnosis for further investigation and three days later was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
"What I knew about pancreatic cancer was the same as most of the population – very little," he recalls. "The average doctor may see a pancreatic patient maybe three times in their career and someone with an acidic tummy, 10 times a week, so when someone exhibits with my symptoms, the last thing they're thinking of is pancreatic cancer. The symptoms can be vague and symptomatic of anything from digestive issues to a strained back."
An "optimistic realist", he says he realised very quickly that what would happen next was outside his control and "in the hands of a higher power".
"From a human point of view, I was certainly going to do everything I possibly could to make sure I was still going to be here for my children, Nicholas and Saskia, who were only 14 and 12 at the time," he explains. "After losing my own dad to cancer when I was just seven, I was even more determined to do that.
"Yet, I also was on a faith-based journey. The only way to survive pancreatic cancer is through surgery and only 15-20 per cent of people have a chance of that, so the next thing was finding out if surgery was even possible."
To his huge relief, exploratory surgery found the cancer was contained and surgery possible – a "marvellous piece of re-plumbing surgery", carried out at the Mater Hospital and called the Whipple's procedure, which involves removal of part of the pancreas and also the gallbladder, part of the small intestine and the bile duct .
This was followed by an eight-month, tablet-based chemotherapy programme – "a bit unpleasant, but I finally had the chance to watch a few box sets" – until, eventually, 10 months after telling his work colleagues he was nipping out to the GP surgery and would be back in an hour, Ivan returned to work.
He also returned to running, completing the London Marathon in 2013 and again in 2014, finishing the latter in three hours, 48 minutes and raising £204,000 for various cancer charities in the process.
But, another marathon was waiting when, in 2015, routine follow-up tests showed the cancer was back. Still in Lithuania after completing a half-marathon and about to head to Oslo to compete in another, his plans swiftly changed after taking a concerned call from a consultant back in Belfast.
This time, surgery wasn't an option and the only chance of survival was through another chemotherapy programme which would give, at best, a 10 per cent chance of improvement. Cure, he says, wasn't talked about.
"Second time around, though, the chemotherapy treatment had advanced and was the strongest programme available – and that was only because of the work of research," Ivan stresses. "I had low odds, but again, I took a faith-based approach and just tried to get on with things.
"The plan was for 12 sessions of chemo and after six, they would review it. At the half-way point, the cancer marker was still increasing, but starting to level out and then, at the end of 12th session, had they not known where the cancers had been, they would not have known where to look. All had disappeared. That moment was just amazing."
Has the traumatic experience changed him?
"Yes,", he says, "but in a good way. As a dad, I told my kids I loved them every day and now I tell them with even more meaning. I understand myself better and I hope my cancer journey has made me a better person too. It has certainly given me a real focus on life and making every day count."
:: Doc says it's the next big cancer battle
THE new research being funded by Cancer Focus will concentrate on the area of immunotherapy in the treatment of pancreatic and oesophageal cancers in which the five-year survival rate in Northern Ireland is dishearteningly low at 4.9 per cent and 18.6 per cent respectively.
But it is an area that oncologist and lead researcher Dr Richard Turkington is hugely excited about, given the success the treatment has already achieved in patients with lung and skin cancers, particularly melanoma.
"It has always been a big mystery why the the body's own immune system doesn't initiate a response with cancer cells, but new drugs are helping unmask this blocking system," he explains. "Unfortunately, most pancreatic and oesophageal types of cancers have so far proved resistant to immunotherapy, but we believe the same revolution can transform the lives of patients with these cancers too."
The three-year project is at an early stage and initially researchers are looking at how the immune system works in these two cancers, while identifying new drugs to help it respond positively.
"This new work will enable us to drive forward a new era of treatment," Dr Turkington adds. "In the battle against cancer, this really is the next big thing."
:: To find out how you can help, visit www.cancerfocusni.org/gift or contact the charity's legacy officer on 028 9068 0740.