Sinn Féin MLA Fra McCann tells of cancer diagnosis: "I'm up for the fight"
Veteran west Belfast politician and republican Fra McCann is coming to terms with one of his biggest challenges after learning he has cancer. He speaks to to Health Correspondent Seanín Graham about the impact of the diagnosis and how his life experiences are helping him cope
FRA McCann is waiting to greet us with a beaming smile as rain pelts down on him outside his Divis home on a miserable December morning.
It’s the area in west Belfast where the 66-year-old Sinn Féin MLA and veteran republican has lived since childhood – he grew up 200 yards away – and is synonymous with him. In between offers of tea and warnings about the family’s territorial house dog, Roxy the Shih Tzu, he finally settles in his favourite armchair and calmly speaks about being diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer a fortnight ago – while stressing he is “up for the fight”.
For months Mr McCann had been experiencing symptoms but held off seeking GP advice until his partner of 38 years, Janette, persuaded him to go to hospital where he underwent emergency treatment. Medics told him that had he not attended, he would have been dead within 24 hours.
“I’d been having difficulties for a couple of months in not being able to go to the toilet but, like a lot of men, I didn’t do anything about it,” he said.
“I only have one kidney. I got the other one removed in 1980. So it had all the appearances of a kidney infection. But some weeks ago it got worse. I couldn’t sleep. I was pacing the floor. I couldn’t go to the toilet at all.
“Just over a fortnight ago my partner insisted that I went to the Royal after my stomach became completely swollen. They put a catheter in and I was transferred to the City Hospital where I was told they needed to do an emergency operation. The kidney had stopped functioning and I had acute renal failure.
“The doctors said if I had not come in on the Monday I would have been dead on the Tuesday.”
Five days after being discharged, and believing himself to be in good health, Mr McCann was asked to return to see a consultant.
“He told me there was no easy way of putting it – but that I had advanced prostate cancer. It had spread to the bones at the lower part of my back and to some of the glands,” he said.
“They told me it is incurable – but treatable. I got word yesterday that they want to do a bone scan to see if there’s traces elsewhere.
“My own GP had said my prostate was very enlarged and you always have something in the back of your head but nothing prepares you. To be told it’s incurable takes the wind out of your sails – but that’s only momentarily. What kicks in then is your family and how they’re going to take it.”
The doting grandfather-of-two – his five-year-old granddaughter Fiadhna has own her personalised toy kitchen in the living room – said he took “an hour out” after receiving the news and then set about telling his closest family and friends.
Coming from a family of 10 and being hugely well known in the community – he was elected as a Sinn Féin councillor to Belfast City Council in 1987 before becoming an MLA in 2003 – the former ‘blanket man’ said the “jungle drums” began to beat. But he has been “overwhelmed” by the supportive telephone calls he has received from others affected by cancer.
“Uppermost in my mind is my family but mentally I am firmly upbeat and that is the way I’ve lived my life. I’ve come through some hard knocks but I’m up for the fight on this, whatever will be will be,” he said.
Having left school at 15, Mr McCann “started life off as a waiter” in the former Conway Hotel in Dunmurry before joining The Irish News in its dispatch department in 1969, where his life-long interest in trade unionism was also sparked.
“They were a great crew in the paper and I have some very happy memories. But the Troubles had started and I was interned. A guy called Terry Cassidy offered me my job back when I came out of jail,” he said.
“I ended up doing night shift. It was quite difficult for Catholics working night shift in places like The Irish News because of the walk down to it. The Shankill Butchers were about at the time and the wee square between Carrick Hill, Donegall Street and Royal Avenue was dangerous.”
While his parents were nationalists, Mr McCann joined the republican movement in his teens and was jailed for IRA membership, both in Long Kesh and Crumlin Road, during the 1970s. He also did a stint in the Manhattan Correctional Centre in New York after trying to enter the US illegally.
Forty-five years ago, in November 1974, Mr McCann was one of 33 prisoners who escaped from Long Kesh after they dug a 190ft-long tunnel. Co Tyrone man Hugh Coney (24) was shot dead lying beside him during the break-out.
For the Glasgow Celtic football fanatic, his life experience as a prisoner and elected representative have given him the resilience to help cope with his illness.
“It’s only 20 years ago that you had drop bars over the front of your house, you’d steel gates at the bottom of your stairs, you’d alarms in your house and cops coming to your door saying your life was in danger, “ he said.
“There was a meeting in city hall in 1992 where the UVF blew up our members room before we arrived. All the bulletproof glass was blown into fragments and stuck in walls.
“But now it’s good to be alive. It’s an exciting time politically in terms of Irish unity, with civic society pushing southwards. It gives you a great lift.”
With more hospital appointments scheduled before the end of this month, Mr McCann added that he “fully supports” strike action by nurses and other health service workers over pay and staffing.
“The care given to me has been magnificent and I back those workers going out on December 18. Whatever happens, I do not believe for one minute that patients who are at risk will be impacted on.”
Despite his diagnosis, Mr McCann continues to work, rising at 6am and dealing with his constituents’ concerns.
“Benefits, roads, universal credit, antisocial behaviour – your home becomes an advice centre. I had four meetings the other day,” he said.
“But I’ve always had a rule of thumb that whenever someone comes to you and speaks to you, what they’re telling you might be the most important thing in their life at that time.
“You give them your ear and hope you can help them or point them in the right direction. I can’t see myself changing.”