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Aberdeenshire pensioner ‘not slightest bit’ worried about cancer diagnosis – because he’s fit

Neil (right) enjoys working out with his personal trainer Ben Riddell (left).
Neil (right) enjoys working out with his personal trainer Ben Riddell (left).

Neil McArthur has not only suffered a heart attack, he’s been diagnosed with leukaemia and a tumour in the last five years.

But he’s “not the slightest bit” concerned about his health – because he knows he’s physically fit.

In fact, Neil firmly believes that starting to work out at his local gym in his 70s has even helped to keep the blood cancer at bay.

And recent research even shows that this could actually be the case.

‘It was like an elephant standing on my chest’

Neil, of Monymusk, was days away from flying out to Kenya on a charity trip to build houses for families in need when he suffered a major heart attack.

He was standing in the city centre in Leeds, where he was visiting family with his wife Susan, when he suddenly felt not quite right.

“I was feeling almost like a toy car with its battery taken out,” he explains. “Then I thought I had indigestion which is often a precursor to a heart attack.”

Neil McArthur and his wife Susan.

That night he felt intense pain pressing down on him and his son Johnnie quickly called for an ambulance.

“It was almost like an elephant standing on your chest,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe properly and it was really sore.

“I was very lucky that I got morphine right away.”

The father-of-two spent the next month at Leeds General Infirmary where he underwent a triple bypass operation in September 2017.

‘It’s like getting a new kitchen – my body has been replumbed’

Neil attended cardiac rehabilitation sessions while recuperating from the procedure when he got back home.

It can take patients around three months to recover from the surgery, which diverts blood around narrowed or clogged parts of arteries.

And through talking to other patients he could see just how worried they were about doing too much because they feared having another heart attack.

Neil McArthur with meerkats as keeper for a day at Blair Drummond Safari Park.

“I took the opposite view,” he says. “My surgeon in Leeds told me I’ve got three new shiny coronary artery grafts – and it’s like getting a new kitchen, you’ve been replumbed.

“When I was out walking in Kemnay I passed a gym and popped in for a wee look. I joined the gym in the January.”

How did he recover?

It was the first time he’d ever stepped into a gym – at the age of 71.

And after booking personal training sessions with life coach Ben Riddell, he gradually built up his strength again.

“At the beginning, there were certain things I couldn’t do because they saw your sternum in half when you have open-heart surgery,” he said.

Neil McArthur at his local gym in Kemnay, Aberdeenshire.</p> <p>

“It was largely walking, running on the belt slowly and more cardio exercises to start with.

“Then, as I recovered, we introduced strengthening exercises and a lot of core work.”

Now Neil, who is originally from Inverness, spends more than an hour in the gym three times a week.

The leukaemia diagnosis

Two years later the retired bank manager was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

It was discovered in a blood test during an annual health check. The cancer, which affects white blood cells, tends to progress slowly over many years.

But thankfully Neil shows no symptoms of the leukaemia – and he puts this down to all the exercise he’s now doing.

Research also backs up his theory. The BMJ, a medical trade journal, states there’s “substantial evidence” that exercise and physical activity improves outcomes for cancer patients.

“I don’t have any of the symptoms that many people sadly have,” Neil said. “I don’t feel tired and weak or have weight loss and I don’t have swollen nodes yet.

“And I don’t have pain in my bones or joints.

Neil at the age of 61 doing a 7-day walk from Mallaig to Monymusk. He raised £13K for charity.

“I’m convinced going to the gym and keeping fit helps me defend myself from this particular illness.”

Last year doctors also uncovered a tumour on the side of Neil’s head and he underwent a procedure to cut it out.

He expects to start radiotherapy soon.

“Had I not been fit I think I would have been worried about all these things,” he says.

“But I’m really not in the slightest bit concerned about my health because I am fit.”

‘The danger for many people retiring is they become sedentary’

Neil has led a busy life taking on many fundraising challenges over the years and works on the board of two charities, NEAT and the Gathimba Edwards Foundation.

In 2015 the village of Monymusk was transformed when he led a campaign to raise £75K for new playground visitors.

He was awarded a BEM for his services to the community four years later.

Neil says he’s glad to have found a love of exercising in his retirement and hopes his story will encourage more pensioners into the gym.

“People who’ve just retired think they can’t exercise.

“But the danger is that when many people retire they just become more sedentary when you should really be trying to be less so.

“I’m now 76 and I’m fitter than I was when I was 55.

Neil was awarded a BEM for his services to his community in 2019.

“I’m not suggesting that you have to go to the gym, you could go out walking – just move.

“I’ve got two grandchildren to keep up with, one is 7 and one is two-and-a-half.

“There’s no way I’m going down to Leeds to be outdone running around the garden –  that’s just not going to happen.”

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Every Friday lunchtime we highlight an incredible story about recovery, overcoming illness and bravery.

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