“There is always hope.”

Belfast man Alastair Mackay is sharing his experience of living with kidney cancer and how Friends of the Cancer Centre has been a vital source of care and support since being diagnosed five years ago.

In 2017, the former Principal of Finaghy Primary School was diagnosed with kidney cancer during an ultrasound scan for a gallstone investigation. After recovering from his initial diagnosis and treatment, two years ago Alastair learned that the cancer had spread. He is currently receiving treatment from the team at the Cancer Centre in Belfast and doing well, and is keen to share his story to give hope to other people impacted by cancer and to raise awareness of Friends of the Cancer Centre, a charity which has become a cause close to his heart.

Throughout his treatment, Alastair has been supported by Friends of the Cancer Centre’s Urology Clinical Nurse Specialist, who provides expert and personalised care to patients through their diagnosis and treatment.  To show his thanks for the care and support he has received, Alastair has been raising vital funds for the charity.  During lockdown in 2020, staff and pupils from Finaghy Primary School, where Alastair served as Principal, took part in a COVID-safe sponsored walk in aid of the charity which raised the amazing sum of £11,000. In May this year, Alastair and his three daughters raised over £3,000 by taking part in the charity’s Take on the Tower Superhero Abseil, which saw supporters from across Northern Ireland abseil 190ft down Belfast City Hospital’s famous yellow tower block.  Alastair is now sharing his story to encourage other people across Northern Ireland to support the charity, by highlighting the difference its work has made to him and his family. 

Looking back at his diagnosis in 2017, Alastair said:

“I was first diagnosed with kidney cancer over five years ago during an ultrasound scan for a gallstone investigation. I had no symptoms at that time and no clue that I had a large tumour growing on my left kidney. Within a matter of weeks I had the kidney removed and was back at work the following month. I remained in good health for three years and my quarterly CT scans were all coming back clear.  However, just as I was beginning to hope I might remain long-term cancer-free, I developed an annoying dull ache between my shoulder blades. In short order I was called for a bone scan and a subsequent full body MRI revealed a significant metastasised tumour on my upper spine and a smaller one on my neck. I knew then that the cancer cells had escaped my kidney, had been silently roaming around in my system all that time and eventually decided to take up residence on my spine.  I was referred immediately to the team at the Cancer Centre in Belfast and I rapidly received an intense course of radiotherapy and was put on an oral chemotherapy-related drug. 

“For the second time, nurses, doctors, consultants, and radiologists swarmed into action. Whilst they were honest with me about the gravity of my situation, at no time did they ever give me cause to give up hope. Quite the opposite in fact.  The complex system of care and treatment they built around me was expertly designed to give me every chance of longer survival and a good quality of life.  My tumours responded well to the radiotherapy, and my six-weekly treatments, alongside quite a large collection of other medication to control the side effects, have kept me stable ever since.

“Cancer treatment is constantly improving. One of my main incentives has been to stay well enough to be eligible for the next refinement, and sure enough I was recently informed that there are new combination therapies being licensed which were not available to me when I began treatment. So there’s always hope.”

Throughout his diagnosis and treatment Alastair has been thankful for the care and support he has received from the team at Belfast City Hospital and the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre, including Friends of the Cancer Centre’s Urology Clinical Nurse Specialist, Melanie McNally. Sharing how Mel has been a vital source of support, Alastair added:

“There is a long list of people whom I need to thank, but outstanding amongst them is Mel McNally, whose post is funded by Friends of the Cancer Centre.  Mel has been my allocated specialist nurse since 2019. I communicate with her face-to-face, by email, by phone and by text. She is always available, no request is too small and no question is too stupid. She has encouraged me through darker days, laughed with me through brighter ones and she coordinates all my care. Mel once said to me ‘always strive not to let cancer define you’, and I took those words to heart. She also once called me ‘an inspiration’. I was rather embarrassed and very humbled, but also hugely gratified if there’s a chance that my story can provide some hope for others. 

“After my diagnosis, Friends of the Cancer Centre became a cause close to my heart, not only for funding Mel’s post, but for the many other ways in which it makes things a little easier as you undergo treatment. I’ve had several stays in hospital which were made much more comfortable by the gardens, patient lounges and other caring and pastoral facilities the charity provides, and I’d also learned of the number of additional staff, the amount of equipment and the special research projects which the charity finance. It’s wonderful that a local charity is playing such an important role in patient care and I have become determined to do what I can to support this vital work.” 

Commenting on why he decided to take on the abseil challenge earlier this year, Alastair said: “Living with cancer makes you very conscious of the limited time we all have on planet Earth. I guess I must have developed a desire to make the most of every day, and to give something back. I took part in the Take on the Tower Superhero Abseil alongside my three daughters to say thank you for the wonderful care I have received, and to raise money to support the work of the charity so that it can go on to help other families across Northern Ireland. I know times are hard for so many people at the moment, but I would encourage anyone who can to show their support for this vital local charity, as so many people – people like me – rely on its work.”

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