Rothwell pensioner Ray Whincup recently celebrated his 80th birthday – and 20 years as a survivor of lung cancer. Since his diagnosis, Ray has dedicated his life to raising awareness of the dangers of smoking and the importance of early diagnosis, appearing in many media campaigns. He is also passionate about improving the patient experience, running a support group and reviewing patient literature. He has shared his story with Yorkshire Cancer Research to mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
You might say that Ray Whincup has cheated death twice.
The first time was back in 1952, when, just a few days before his 15th birthday, he narrowly avoided being killed by flying debris during the Farnborough air show disaster.
Ray was ‘mad-keen’ on aircraft from an early age and had travelled to the event alone after receiving a ticket from his family as a present.
After completing a supersonic flypast – a relatively new phenomenon at the time – an aeroplane broke apart, killing the pilot, an on-board flight test observer and 29 spectators watching from the ground.
Ray remembers the day in great detail.
“It was an experience and I was lucky to survive it,” he says. “I’ve been lucky ever since in many ways. I’ve done so many wonderful things.”
48 years later, Ray came close to losing his life again. In the spring of 1998, he was diagnosed with lung cancer after coughing up blood.
Only one in 20 people diagnosed with lung cancer survive for more than 10 years, but Ray has defied the odds by recently marking 20 years free of the disease.
Ray, who turned 80 in September, said: “I didn’t think I would make this age. My dad, my mum and my uncle all died at 79. My brother, who was much fitter than me, suffered an aneurysm at the age of 78. Now I accept every day as it comes.”
Ray left school at 14 and got a job at a local bank. At the age of 18, he began two years of national service in the Royal Air Force. It was during this time that he started smoking.
“In our era, smoking was the smart thing to do,” Ray explains. “There were lots of advertisements and all the film stars did it. It was permitted upstairs on double-decker buses, or in the rear seats on single-deckers. I would travel to Leeds on the bus with my mum, and sometimes I had to get off because I felt sick. I never would have dreamed of smoking as a child.
“I only started after hitching lifts home from a family friend when I had weekends off from the RAF. He was smoker so to say thank you I bought him a packet of cigarettes. The next weekend, he didn’t show up, and I never saw him again. I had 20 cigarettes in my pocket, and over the course of the weekend I tried the odd one. I think the likelihood is I would probably not have smoked at all if that hadn’t happened.”
After a successful 37-year career in the banking industry, Ray was lucky enough to retire early at the age of 52. Within 12 months he realised he would need to give up the cigarettes if he wanted a good chance of enjoying a long and happy future with his wife, Hazel.
“When I was retired I could smoke all day long because I had so much free time. But working in banking, I knew the risks if you got cancer. Once I’d decided to quit, I never had another cigarette. I didn’t use patches or anything. I didn’t go to the doctors. I’d just buy Glacier mints in trade jars and have one whenever I felt a craving. Soon I was off the mints too.
“I was amazed by how easy it was. I realised how crazy I’d been. The cost of cigarettes was extortionate and when I stopped I used to buy whatever I fancied with the extra money I had.”
During the following years, Ray exercised regularly at Oulton Hall’s leisure club. When he first underwent a fitness assessment, his results were very poor. But Ray would spend up to four hours a day at the five star facility, and by the time he turned 60 he says he was probably the ‘fittest pensioner in Rothwell’.
However, he also spent nearly every evening volunteering behind the bar at a local sports club. Smoking was still permitted in workplaces, including bars, pubs and clubs, and Ray was exposed to a huge amount of passive smoke.
Despite his efforts to live a healthier life, Ray began coughing up blood early in 1998. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation to remove his entire right lung, leaving him with just 40% of his previous breathing capacity.
“I think my lifestyle of going to the club every night possibly contributed to the fact that I developed lung cancer, despite quitting many years previously. However, I also think that going to the leisure centre was the main reason behind my survival. I was considered physically capable of having the operation,” Ray says. “Had I still been at work I would have been dead before I was 60. It was a stressful job and I would not have stopped smoking. I’ve done such a lot, when you think about what could have been.”
Just before being diagnosed with lung cancer, Ray realised an aviation dream when he flew from London to Leeds on the supersonic airliner Concorde. He was allowed to film the entire event from take-off to landing and the resulting DVD provides a permanent record of his wonderful day.
Since his operation, Ray has attended his son Simon’s wedding and walked his daughter Alison down the aisle. He has also seen the births of two grandchildren, Thomas and Alexa, who are now teenagers.
To celebrate Ray’s 80th birthday, Hazel organised for a stretch limousine to take the whole family out for lunch.
Ray says: “We visited Canada for Simon’s 40th birthday in 2008, arriving in Toronto before travelling on to Niagara Falls. We all enjoyed a fabulous helicopter trip over the falls. It’s something we will never forget. A few years later, trips to New York and Rome followed. We’ve made so many memories.”
During the past two decades Ray has become heavily involved in raising awareness of lung cancer and running a patient support group.
He has worked closely with the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust to develop patient materials and promote media campaigns such as ‘Got a Cough? Get A Check’, which encouraged people with respiratory problems to request a chest x-ray.
Next summer, Ray plans to support the promotion of a new lung screening trial funded by a £5.2m award from Yorkshire Cancer Research. The trial is being run by Dr Matthew Callister, Consultant in Respiratory Medicine, and will test the impact of offering lung screening in mobile vans within communities in the Leeds area.
“The night before my operation I laid in bed thinking I was going to die,” Ray admits. “The statistics were horrendous. Most people are diagnosed with lung cancer at a late stage because they either don’t have any symptoms or they think they’ve got a cough because they’re a smoker. If it’s diagnosed late, the chances of survival are very low.
“I was very fortunate that I made it through, and I’ve never looked back since. I’ve always been keen to do anything I can to help others. One of the best things was when someone said that reading my article in the paper probably saved their life.”
The Leeds Lung Cancer & Mesothelioma Patient Support (LAMPS) Support Group meets on the first Monday of each month from 1pm-3pm at the Robert Ogden Centre, St James’s University Hospital, Leeds. Contact Carmel Facer on 0113 206 7916 for more information.