Frank McLaughlin: “Never wait to get something checked out, it may be too late.”

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Sometimes you get the privilege in life of meeting a true gentleman.

This week, as I spoke with Frank McLaughlin for the next in our cancer survival series, I was struck by how he most definitely fitted that description.

Full to the brim of lovely stories, the 83-year-old was supposed to be telling me about surviving cancer (which he did!) but I also got to hear so much more.

Born in the Glen in 1928, Frank was a former pupil of the Christian Brothers, moving to the Waterside in 1949.

His father had been a shopkeeper and it must have been in the genes as Frank went on to open McLaughlins on Spencer Road in 1973.

Having sold the shop in 2004, it’s still fondly known in the area as McLaughlins.

A father of seven, along with his wife Celine, the family are well-known as their place in the local area is firmly rooted in the shop.

Additionally, his son Frank founded the successful Q network of radio stations, and one of his daughters, Grainne, is the brainchild behind BubbleBum, an innovative children’s travel booster seat.

Yet, we do eventually get chatting about his experience with cancer.

“I went to the doctors because I just wasn’t feeling right. I had been losing weight and had a horrible grey colour about my face.

“I was initially diagnosed with a stomach ulcer but I knew there was something more to it so I asked to be referred to another doctor, Dr Bateson.

“He agreed to do some more tests and I was very lucky he did as I has stomach cancer the whole time.

“When he told me he said, ‘I have good news, and I have bad news’. The bad news was of course that I had stomach cancer and needed two thirds of my stomach removed.

“I promptly asked him what the good news was after that. He replied, ‘I know I’ll be happy with my work. I will do a good job, but fighting cancer is a two man job. I need you to fight alongside me.”

Frank followed his advice and unbelievably, he was back behind the counter in his shop three months later. “I missed the craic, “ he declares.

Unfortunately, his own stomach cancer was not Frank’s first experience of the illness.

“My son Declan passed away in 1998 from a tumour. For years before that they had been treating him for a cyst, while all along he had a tumour in his leg, growing all the time. I guess watching his experience is what made me push for my own diagnosis.

“Watching his treatment was very frustrating as he went up and down to Belfast and there was nothing they could do.

“I always think I learned with Declan that we should trust our own instincts.”

Frank also believes his faith got him through.

“I live by the words, ‘He is my Shepherd’. God is my boss and I believe that instead of questioning, you have to accept what He has mapped out for us.

“I also had a healer come up from Dublin ahead of my treatment, who has a direct contact. He placed one finger at the top of my spine and another at the bottom, I felt an intense heat, jolted a bit and really felt he was helping me.

“He said to me afterwards, ‘You’ll not need all six sessions of your chemotherapy, five will be enough. And don’t worry about your bloods, I’ll look after them.’

“And it worked. I only needed five sessions of chemotherapy and my bloods were never wrong.

“Also, on my way down to theatre a prayer came to me, which I said, and I honestly felt no pain, I was so relaxed. My faith definitely got me through.”

Although he got through his cancer Frank’s health took a deterioration a year later, suffering a heart attack while at work.

“I felt some tightness on my chest one day but it disappeared when I sat down. But it came back the next day so I got my son to ring the doctor and tell him to ring ahead to Altnagelvin because I knew it wasn’t good. They didn’t want me to go straight over, but I did anyway and thank god I did.

“The initial ECG was coming up clear but a nurse, Attracta Bradley (one of others in our cancer survival series) insisted I stay and within half an hour I was in intensive care and later that day taken to the Royal in an ambulance for surgery that same day.

“That’s why I always tell people, trust your own body, if you know there’s something not right then you’re probably right.

“Never wait to get something checked out, it may be too late.”

Frank now looks after his wife Celine full-time, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but he likes to do a spot of old-time dancing.

“I can do around 50 to 60 different dances but it’s hard to find the time these days. I love going when I can though.”

And although I want to sit all day and hear more about the days when he played in a band in London, living in a caravan beside Edgeware Road train station, time is not on my side.

I think I’ll have to re-visit Frank some day, see what other gems of wisdom and advice he has for us.

In the meantime, I leave with one clear message in my head, ‘Always trust your gut.’

First published 22 June 2014