Wednesday 16 August 2017

Tommie Gorman: My battle with the cancer that killed Steve Jobs

The RTE man will speak at a conference to give hope to thousands, writes Deirdre Reynolds

Steve Jobs had 100 black tutlenecks made for him
Steve Jobs had 100 black tutlenecks made for him

When Steve Jobs passed away at his home after a seven-year battle with cancer last week, the sad news rippled around the world on the devices he invented.

Within seconds, social-networking sites Facebook and Twitter were creaking under the weight of public grief for the man who helped make it all possible.

But more than 5,000 kilometres away in the Montrose newsroom, journalist Tommie Gorman had a far more personal reason to pay silent tribute to the Apple founder.

Although it's more simply been called 'pancreatic cancer', the cause of Jobs' failing health and shrinking frame over the past few years was a metastatic pancreas neuroendocrine tumour -- a relative of the rare form of carcinoid cancer that the RTÉ Northern Editor has been living with since 1994.

"I was extremely sad for him," says Tommie (55). "I know a lot of the symptoms and have a fair sense of the journey he was on."

Like Jobs, Gorman has made no secret of his condition -- and his determination to "stay a few steps ahead" of the disease.

And this weekend, he's set to speak to other cancer survivors about the scientific advances that have kept him out in front at a conference on Neuroendocrine/Carcinoid Tumours (NETs) in Cork.

"Since I was diagnosed, I've had lots of things done to me -- surgery, radiation therapy, radioembolization and injections," he says.

"Most of my treatment has been done in Sweden, but we're slowly building up a network of doctors and patients here who understand it, so I look forward to the day when all of my treatment can be done in Ireland.

"When people hear the 'C' word, they think they're finished," he adds. "But I'm still alive, still have energy and am still able to work. No-one goes out there thinking, 'I'd love to get cancer', but if you are to have it, this is one of the better forms to get."

Although Jobs's untimely death at 56 was, in the end, a victory for pancreatic cancer, the precious years, months and hours between his diagnosis and death represent a small win of sorts in the war on the disease, according to the Irish medics blazing a trail in the treatment of NETs.

"With the most common form of pancreatic cancer, the life expectancy is around two years," says Dr Derek Power, consultant medical oncologist at Mercy University Hospital, Cork.

"Luciano Pavarotti, Patrick Swayze and Brian Lenihan, for instance, all had the more fatal form of the disease. If you look at Steve Jobs -- who had an NET of the pancreas, he got almost four times as long.

Continued on p34

Continued from p33

"It's very hard to make a blanket statement on NETs because there are so many different types," he adds. "Many cases present with no symptoms at all and are diagnosed incidentally.

"With surgery and the right treatment, however, a lot of these tumours can be curative -- so the outlook doesn't have to be grim. It's not uncommon for people to live for a long time with this type of cancer."

In Ireland, there are around 250 new cases of the slow-growing tumours -- which usually strike in the gastrointestinal tract -- each year.

And at the third Southern Symposium on Foregut Cancers this Saturday, oncology experts and patients from around the world are set to hear how Cork could be on course to become the global capital for cutting-edge treatment of the disease that claimed tech giant Jobs.

"Ten years ago, there was a lot of misinformation and poor care surrounding NETs in Ireland," explains Dr Power, one of the organisers of the event which takes place at UCC.

"But that has improved dramatically and now, we have world-class expertise in the area.

"Two of the latest drugs to treat NETs -- Pfizer Sunitinib and Novartis Everolimus -- are actually made in Cork. Surgery is much better and we have techniques like radiofrequency ablation (radiofrequency energy which 'burns' away cancerous cells) and interventional radiology (image-guided targeted treatment) that we didn't have a decade ago."

Since speaking about the first Irish trials of another new miracle drug to treat cancer in this paper recently, Dr Power has discovered the unsated thirst among survivors of the disease for information and, perhaps more importantly, hope.

"The response has been incredible," he says. "I've been sent miraculous medals in the post and have been getting emails from all over Ireland.

"Too often in medicine, we practise as an island with very little communication -- but it's important for people to know what treatment is available to them.

"We have experts in surgery, pathology, radiology, nuclear medicine, endocrinology and oncology coming from all over the world to present lectures on the management of these tumours at the conference," he adds, "and a patient forum so people can discuss their experience of the disease and ask questions.

"There's so much doom and gloom when it comes to cancer that it's great to be involved in something positive and exciting -- and see it work for your patients."

Regularly seen on television screens across the land looking nothing like you imagine a cancer patient should -- in fact, not looking sick at all -- veteran broadcaster Tommie Gorman could be a better ad for the modern NET-fighting therapies than any number of fact-filled expert presentations.

"I'm often contacted by patients who know my story looking for advice," tells Tommie, who chronicled his attempts to halt the spread of the tumours in his body in the documentary Europe, Cancer and Me.

"And it's a privilege to be able to share how science has helped me with other people.

"What's worse is when people who have a more aggressive form of the disease contact you for help -- and you can't offer any."

And while he'll never be entirely cancer-free, Tommie says he won't let the "weeds" win.

"It's a bit like weeds growing in your garden -- you have to cut them every so often and over time they become that bit more complex," he says.

"They'll never go away, but all I can do is keep cutting the weeds -- and hope the advances in science stay a few steps ahead of the advances in the disease."

The third Southern Symposium on Foregut Cancers takes place on Saturday October 15 2011 in the DeVere Hall, Student Centre, University College Cork.

Irish Independent

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