Future Proof Your Health

17th, August 2016

Diane Harron Eakin explains the importance of health screening.

Diane Harron Eakin explains the importance of health screening

I was dancing with Christian Grey’s father.  The Dominoes were playing.   It was a private party in the 1970’s at Crawfordsburn Country Club and the room was full of bright young things who mostly knew one another.    As usual instead of concentrating on my dance steps, I was chatting.  And it happened to be about cancer.  Do you realise, said Christian Grey’s father, that one in three of the people here will get cancer?

The music stopped – at least it did for me as I digested that chilling piece of chat.

The years passed – there were marriages and births – and then deaths.  Christian Grey’s father is now Professor Jim Dornan, Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology but in those days he was a newly practising baby doctor and Jamie Dornan (he of “The Fall” and “50 shades of Grey”) was still to be one of the three children born to him and his wife Lorna. 

The Dominoes who were playing was founded by Fred Isdell, Bill Morrison, Mike Shanks and Roderick Downer in their A-level year at Campbell College.  Like so many of the early beat groups, including the Beatles, the Dominoes started out as a Lonnie Donegan inspired skiffle group - complete with washboards and tea-chest bass. After a brief period under the influence of the Shadows, they met up with a singer called Elmer and were described as Elmer and the Dominoes until Elmer left and they were just The Dominoes again.  From 1961, The Dominoes, now joined by Chris Doran and Dick Pentland, played Saturday nights at the Belfast Boat Club, and at private parties like the one that night in Crawfordsburn Country Club.  For many people now in their 60’s and 70’s, the Boat Club is still fondly remembered as the only gig in town. The Dominoes evolved into an accomplished rhythm and blues band who took their inspiration from Manfred Mann and the Rolling Stones.

As the years rolled on that chilling prediction of Jim Dornan started to materialise… his father died of cancer at the age of 62 when Jim was only 34, and then his beautiful wife Lorna fought and lost her battle with cancer.

Of the Dominoes, Fred Isdell died of cancer, as did Chris Doran and his wife.  Mike Shanks got cancer too but has survived for many years following treatment.  My husband lost his three best friends from childhood and university to cancer, all in their fifties.  And I lost one of my dearest friends, Sally, in her early 40’s.

And just more than 10 years ago in March 2005, Jim Dornan himself was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia.  He is now in remission.

It is a sad introduction to what will be a more hopeful story.   Who hasn’t had a friend, a relative, a co-worker, touched by cancer?  But increasingly the watchword is not just lifestyle changes, genetic predisposition, diet, more exercise, no smoking, little drinking…it is “early diagnosis”.   I happened to be talking to a doctor a couple of months ago who told me his father had three serious types of cancer but survived another  10 good years because they were diagnosed at an early stage and he had appropriate treatment.

I’m 70 years old now and I suppose it is inevitable that my thoughts are turning to my mortality.  My father died at the age of 59 – not cancer related – but my mother is hale and hearty, still driving and doing charity work at the age of 92.  Whose genes do I have? 

I’ve never had a cancer scare but I do have a very bad back.  Too many falls off young disobedient horses in the hunting field and a particularly bad fall from a show-jumper while filming at the Horse of the Year Show in London and I landed on a radio microphone transmitter strapped in the small of my back.  Very damaging!

So, it just so happened  that, following some treatment  to my back which involved big needles and cortisone and barely muffled screams, that I had to go back  six weeks later to see if it had worked.  (It had, but only for a total of three months so more radical treatment is needed, but that is for another time).  I am a great supporter of our NHS, convinced that if something really bad happens it will be there for us.  I do still believe that but after literally years of consultations, physio, acupuncture, and more physio, I finally threw up the head as nothing seemed to be happening and “went private”!

So, here I am, six weeks after my facet joint and SI joint treatment, turning up at the new out-patients department of Kingsbridge Private Hospital for review with the consultant anaesthetist.  As I get out of the car I find a red carpet across the pavement leading to the front door.  I push on.  The door is swept open and I am handed a glass of Prosecco and my pick of a tray of canapés.  I’m liking this “private health service” and I mean service!

But I had to get over myself fairly quickly when I realised that it wasn’t just for me or even for all the patients coming for review.  It transpired that this day was the official opening of the multi-million pound new out-patients department and the state-of-the-art MRI Centre.

I found myself talking to the man from Philips International, (I never knew the light bulb company was Dutch).   Koninklijke Philips N.V. (Royal Philips, commonly known as Philips) is a Dutch technology company headquartered in Amsterdam with primary divisions focused in the areas of electronics, healthcare and lighting. It was founded in Eindhoven in 1891 by Gerard Philips and his father Frederik. It is one of the largest electronics companies in the world and employs around 105,000 people across more than 60 countries.

They had installed the MRI scanner and he proudly told me that it was superior to any other in Ireland.  I was getting into my stride now and full journalistic mode (old journalists never die – they just have less excuse to be nosy but I was ignoring that).    Then I was introduced to the Medical Director of 3fivetwo Group, Dr. Suresh Tharma, gynaecologist turned exceedingly successful businessman.  It was he who told me about his father having three types of cancer and surviving another ten years because of early diagnosis.

The seed was sown.   I had another glass of Prosecco (I was being collected) and decided there and then that a full body MRI scan was the way to go. And that was the start of my MRI journey.

Here comes the science!  MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) detects the water in your body.  The human body contains a lot of water, and this is what MRI detects – particularly the hydrogen atoms that are part of the water molecules (H2O).  So, the magnet in the scanner aligns the hydrogen atoms in the direction of the magnetic field. A short burst of radio waves is sent which makes the hydrogen atoms change direction.  When the waves are turned off the hydrogen atoms realign themselves giving off tiny radio signals.  They do this at different rates in various organs and tissues in the body so the image that the scanner produces has a mixture of light and dark just like a normal photograph.  This information is collected on a computer and following complicated mathematical calculations the image goes on a screen just like a digital camera.  It can look at virtually any organ, but most commonly used to look at the brain, spine, abdomen, pelvis and blood vessels, and to diagnose injuries to joints such as the shoulder, wrist, knee and ankle.  It can also be used to find abnormal tissue, swelling or inflammation and to investigate problems with blood flow.  In other words, just what I wanted, a complete MOT!

That is the science.  But what I wanted to know in addition was very simple.   Does it hurt? How long does it take? Is the knocking sound inside the scanner that I have heard about really very loud?  Can I have “Twilight Sleep” so I know nothing until it is all over?  Are repeated MRI scans  themselves detrimental to my health, like an x-ray?  Do I undress?  

There are what the hospital call “One2One” advisors who should be able to answer all these questions, and I was fortunate to get Anthony McKenna, the Radiology Operations manager, on the end of a phone and I put my questions…

How long does it take?  The full body scan is about two hours or maybe more.

Does it hurt? No, not at all.  I was reassured that I would not feel a thing and this was true. While the scanner might be a giant magnet the patient does not feel either magnetism or radio waves.  And I can have as many as I like – there is no effect such as radiation.

What about the knocking sound?  Yes, he advised, it is noisy and it is suggested that the patient brings a CD of favourite music and listen to it through headphones to minimise effect of the noise.  I brought an audio story – a thriller to lose myself in.  Sadly their CD player wasn’t compatible with my CD, so I suggested, as an alternative, feeding me Radio 4.  Hah!  Try listening to Radio 4 while supine inside a large tin can and it sounds like someone outside is battering on it with a very large sledge hammer! 

What about “Twilight Sleep” – the same as I get for serious work at the dentist? My main concern was that I suffer from claustrophobia and a long period inside an enclosed space would be very upsetting for me.  I would like to “sleep” through it.   No, not possible as at times you have to respond to the radiographers, e.g. having to take a deep breath, hold it, and then let it out for certain parts of the scan. 

But usefully, I was advised that two Diazepam taken an hour before the scan would sufficiently relax me to avoid any sort of panic about feeling closed in.  In the event I did this – my GP prescribed the Diazepam – and I think I was so relaxed I slept through most of it, just rousing myself to hold my breath when the demand to do so came through the headphones.

Do I undress?  Not necessary, but I was advised to wear loose comfortable clothing and this is the most important instruction – no metal, either in me or on me!  No bra fastenings, jewellery, mobile phones, coins, keys or pens, no watch or hairclips, rings, earrings, belly rings or other piercings (said to me with a straight face). 

Obviously people with pacemakers or internal metal fragments, pain relief patches or a hearing aid must tell the radiographer, and accommodation is I presume made for them.  But that wasn’t a problem for me, nor was the fact that I have teeth implants.

The questions all answered, the next step is a pre-scan interview with the Kingsbridge Private Hospital doctor, in my case Dr. Lisa Neligan, to discuss any medical concerns or particular worries about certain parts of the body.  Twenty four hours later, the appointment was on for the scan.  This is what was particularly important for me.   The speed with which everything was arranged.

The MRI radiographers on the day were Craig and Kevin who had obviously done the “Great Bedside Manner” course and come out top of the class.  I can honestly say they processed me kindly and efficiently and sent me home with a promise to send me a DVD of my insides as scanned within a few days. 

When that arrived, it came with another appointment to return to Dr. Neligan who, armed with the Consultant Radiologist’s report, went through the scan findings in detail, referring me to the pictures on the computer screen.

I have a copy of that report, I recorded the discussion with the doctor on my mobile phone as I know I would have forgotten quite a lot of it, and I have print-outs of scan images against the radiologist’s report.

It has been a very worthwhile exercise.  I know what I have now to attend to in order to maximise a healthy future.  A lot of my concerns have been laid to rest. 

I started writing this article recently, just as the news of the deaths from cancer in their late 60’s of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Motorhead’s Lemmie, was announced.    Before I finished writing it another statistic was announced   by one of the leading Cancer Research organisations …20 years ago, coming up to the end of the 20th century, only one of every four people who contracted cancer, survived.  Today that survival rate is two out of four.  In another twenty years, with successful research, better drugs, therapies and treatment, and earlier diagnosis it is predicted that three out of four people who get cancer will survive.  We have it on the run!

- Diane Harron Eakin


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