Ray Whincup, 80, survived cancer – now he raises awareness of the disease. Grace Hammond reports.
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, from Rothwell, 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.”
Forty eight years later, Ray came close to losing his life again.
In the spring of 1998, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
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.”
At the age of 18, Ray 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. “
After a successful 37-year career in the banking industry, Ray was retired early at the age of 52.
Within 12 months he realised he would need to give up cigarettes if he wanted a good chance of enjoying a long and happy future with his wife, Hazel.
“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 club and by the time he turned 60 was probably the “fittest pensioner in Rothwell”.
However, he also spent nearly every evening volunteering behind the bar at a local sports club where smoking was still permitted and Ray was exposed to a huge amount of passive smoke. Despite his efforts to live a healthier life, he began coughing up blood early in 1998. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation to remove his entire right lung.
“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.
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, a 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.”