‘Four times fighting cancer is enough’: Retired Co Down educator on moving forward to keep NI’s beauty

Retired classics teacher John Reilly MBE will not let the fallout from FOUR battles with cancer stop him from doing his part to keep Northern Ireland beautiful.

He got a custom trailer with an on-board toilet so he could pick up trash in places like Morne without worrying about getting caught.

John, 65, from Dundonald, survived twice bowel cancer, as well as skin cancer and a rare neuroendocrine tumor that caused him to undergo major surgery in November 2020.

He underwent the so-called Whipple operation, a high-risk operation to remove part of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, gallbladder and bile duct.

John was supported in his recovery by the members of his church, Presbyterian Dundonald, and now he cannot wait to get out and serve his community again.

“I have participated in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for many years. In fact, on the 1999 New Year Honors List, I was awarded an OBE for services to education and participation in the program.

“I spent so many years taking young people to places like Morne, so organizing a garbage collection was our way of giving something back. This is what I want to do now that I’m retired.”

John never married, instead he “married the school”. He had a passion for Latin and spent his career at the Royal Academy of Belfast, where he was also the recipient of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize.

He had bowel cancer in his family and was first diagnosed in 1989 when he was only 32 years old.

Tests showed that he was a carrier of an inherited condition called Lynch syndrome, which can increase the risk of developing cancer of the digestive tract, and polyamines were found in his colon. John then underwent surgery to remove part of his intestines.

“I ignored the symptoms. I ran to the toilet more than 15 times a day, coming up with excuses to run away from class,” he says.

“I was so lucky that the doctors found my cancer early. I always tell people not to be stupid like me. If a part of your body is not working as usual, see a doctor.”

In 2006, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer for the second time and underwent another operation. This time he was fitted with a colostomy bag, although it was later removed.

John took early retirement in August 2016 to take care of his mother, whose health was failing, although he remained active in community work through his church.

Dundonald Presbyterian members supported him when his mom died in 2020 and he was diagnosed with another cancer shortly after.

“I had a rash on my head and was losing weight, [so] I had various tests and scans,” he explains.

“I was standing outside Eurospar in Dundonald when they called me and said they had found a large mass near my pancreas.

“I wondered if this would finally be a case of goodbye cruel world. Is this going to be the same muck that got me?

Fortunately, John’s medical team decided that his neuroendocrine tumor was treatable with the Whipple procedure. In November 2020, he underwent a successful operation at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

He says: “My life belongs to the National Health Service, it was incredible.”

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John with custom trailer

John admits that he forced the medical staff to release him earlier than planned – “all the beeping machines drove me crazy” – on the condition that his friends from the church come to take care of him.

“They were so kind to me. I was weak as water. The ladies from the church came every day to bring food and help me with things like getting dressed and doing housework,” he says.

“So many people followed me. My weight dropped from 12 stone to nine stone, so they worked hard to put some weight on me.”

When John was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma last fall, a common and treatable form of skin cancer, he underwent another minor operation to remove it and then focused on his recovery.

“I think getting cancer four times is enough. I am ready to look to the future right now. I also lost my brother to colon cancer, so I know better than anyone that life is really too short,” he says.

To this end, John is determined to return to the countryside he loves and “give something back to the hills”.

With the support of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and his old school, he hopes to organize a cleanup and get out on his own when he can.

He was recently diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes as a result of an operation, and now he needs injections before every meal and an injection before bed – a total of four injections a day.

All of John’s surgeries have also resulted in digestive problems, which means it’s good to never stray too far from the toilet.

Undeterred, he decided to build his own handheld devices with the help of a firm in Netauntubby called W Hall Limited, run by an old buddy, Chris Hall.

Chris’ firm has created a special trailer that can be towed behind John’s Hyundai. In addition to having a place to store tools and collect rubbish, it also has a toilet on board.

“There are signs on each side and it looks great. I’m so happy with it,” says John.

“It’s impressive, it has a comfortable bathroom and plenty of storage space for all my trash.

“I feel very humble. So many people supported me during my recovery. Now I just want to give something back and keep doing it for as long as I can.”

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John and Chris Hall, whose firm built the trailer