Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

‘I’m lucky to be alive’: The miracle man of Fraserburgh who has beaten four cancers and a stroke

After one cancer operation, Tommy Neilson thought he'd woken up in the morgue. But he is still fighting fit thanks to his 'positive pants' and the lifelong love of wife Margaret.

Margaret and Tommy at home in Fraserburgh with dog Teddy sitting on Margaret's lap.
Tommy and his wife Margaret, who has been through thick and thin with him. The Fraserburgh man has beaten cancer and, most recently, a traumatic stroke. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Which is worse — cancer or a stroke? It’s a question no one wants to be able to answer, but Tommy Neilson can.

Tommy, 62, has had bowel cancer, lung cancer and liver cancer (twice).

Last year, just as he thought his health problems were behind him, the former haulage driver suffered a stroke that he is only now recovering from.

A portrait photo of Tommy sitting on his own in Fraserburgh.
Tommy has come through a number of terrifying illnesses/ Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

But which was worse? For Tommy, there’s a clear winner.

“The stroke was a lot worse,” Tommy says. “That was scary. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t even get out of bed.”

Cancer shock after holiday in Lanzarote

Tommy has had so many health issues over the years — and survived them all — that he’s a legend in his home town.

“They call me the miracle man of Fraserburgh,” he says, before recounting his grueling bouts with illness.

His first was bowel cancer at the age of just 39. It was 2000 and Tommy was working as a tipper driver at the St Fergus Gas Terminal just north of Peterhead.

Life was good. He loved his job and had just been on holiday to Lanzarote with wife Margaret and four children.

A holiday snap of Tommy in a pool with a grandchild.
Tommy on holiday with one of his grandchildren. Image: Supplied by Tommy Neilson

One morning, he found blood in his stools. He started to feel unwell, and though his doctor initially thought it was a stomach bug that would soon clear up, the illness continued.

Margaret – whose mother had recently died of cancer – pushed for blood tests and Tommy was taken to hospital. Doctors found a blockage in his bowel that would be diagnosed as cancer.

The diagnosis, he says, was like a car crash: “Everything implodes, and you lose control of everything.”

Tommy sitting outside with his Shih-Tzu dog teddy on his lap.
Tommy Neilson with his faithful dog Teddy. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

How Tommy met his ‘car quine’ Margaret and fell in love

His initial thought was how to tell Margaret.

The two had been together since they were teenagers — they first met at the Broadgate in Fraserburgh when Tommy was hanging out with friends and Margaret was what he calls one of the “car quines”.

They met again at a dance at the Station Hotel. Tommy still remembers the name of the DJ — Brian Topping — but the rest of the night is a blur.

A selfie photo of Tommy and Margaret holding a glass of wine
Tommy and Margaret. Image: Supplied by Tommy Neilson

After that, the two were inseparable.

“Margaret always seemed to show up, wherever I was,” he says. “It was as if we were like two magnets.”

They married in August 1983, and daughter Louise was born a year later, followed by Jenna and then the twins Johnathan and Jamie in 1989.

Tommy and Margaret on their wedding day in 1983
Tommy and Margaret on their wedding day in 1983. Image: Supplied by Tommy Neilson

Now, faced with news of Tommy’s bowel cancer, Margaret rallied the family. Tommy says it was his wife’s love that helped him through each of his illnesses. More recently, he’s also been helped by Teddy, his faithful shih tzu.

“She’s been by my side and never faltered,” he continues. “We’ve been together since she was 15, and we’re still here yet.”

A 50/50 survival chance, and waking up in a ‘morgue’

Thanks to the bowel operation, and a round of chemotherapy, Tommy made a full recovery.

But in 2006, he was back in hospital after feeling unwell. This time, doctors diagnosed liver and lung cancer, and the outlook wasn’t good.

“Basically, they told me there was nothing they could do,” Tommy says. “But I said to Margaret, don’t tell the kids. I’m going to fight this.”

Two days later, Tommy gets a phone call. It’s a new surgeon who thinks Tommy is fit enough to undergo an operation that would cut away almost three quarters of his liver – leaving him just enough to avoid liver failure, while also excising the cancer.

The operation carried a lot of risk.

Tommy was told he had a 50/50 chance of survival (a later operation would tackle the lung cancer). But he discussed it with Margaret and agreed to go ahead.

Tommy sitting outside with wife Margaret and dog Teddy on his lap.
Tommy says wife Margaret has helped him get through his cancers and stroke. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

He only remembers a few things from the day of the operation. Chatting to Margaret beforehand. Taking a couple of pills. And then being taken down to theatre not knowing if he’d come back.

“I never even looked at my wife,” he says. “I just cried all the way down.”

The operation lasted from eight in the morning to 2am the next day. It was a success, but that’s not how Tommy saw it when he came to in the high dependency ward.

He later found out that patients are wrapped in tin foil to help their recovery, but — still dazed from the operation — he panicked when he saw what he thought were people being prepared for the oven.

“I saw all these people wrapped in tin foil, and thought, am I in the morgue?” he says, laughing. “I didn’t really know where I was.”

Laser surgery and a quick recovery

In 2011, Tommy’s liver cancer returned. Cutting away three-quarters of his liver had not been enough and he had to have another operation

Technology had advanced, however, and his new procedure would be by laser surgery.

Instead of lasting 18 hours, it would take just eight — and his chances of surviving it were considerably greater. In fact, everything went so smoothly that Tommy had his operation on Thursday and was back home by Monday.

“Record time,” he says.

Over the next few years, Tommy went for regular blood scans in case the cancer came back for a fifth time. So far, he’s been cancer free. But that’s not what he thought after his stroke last year.

Tommy and Margaret walking down a street Fraserburgh taking dog Teddy for a walk.
Tommy and Margaret in Fraserburgh. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

It happened on a Monday morning. Work phoned Margaret after Tommy failed to come to work and his daughter found him still in bed unable to lift one of his arms.

He was rushed to hospital, but when they scanned his head, Tommy — so accustomed to cancer scans — thought the doctors were checking for something else.

“I thought, ok, this cancer has probably gone to my brain now,” he says.

Unable to walk and desperate, Tommy faces some dark moments

But it wasn’t cancer. It was a stroke. And it was to plunge Tommy into one of the darkest periods of his life.

The worst part was his lack of mobility. At first, his couldn’t even sit up. The muscles in his chest and stomach were “totally numb”, he recalls.

He was incontinent, and couldn’t take himself to the toilet. Everything was done with bed pans and pads.

“It was a nightmare,” he says.

Tommy doesn’t remember this, but three days after his stroke he wrote “help” on his Facebook page.

Tommy Neilson with a grandchild on his shoulders holding giant sunflowers
Tommy and one of his grandchildren on a recent holiday. Image: Supplied by Tommy Neilson

Later, lying in bed in Albyn hospital, he considered taking his own life.

What stopped him were thoughts about his family; leaving Margaret without a husband, his children without a dad and his grandchildren without a grandpa.

‘Bulletproof’ Tommy puts on his positive pants

So far, Tommy is beating his stroke. He threw himself into his recovery and is back walking and even running.

And though he knows not everyone makes it through cancer, he’s determined to show the power of keeping on what he calls his “positive pants”.

And what if his cancer returns?

“I try not to worry anymore because I’ve been worried for most of my life,” he says. “It just becomes a fact of life.

“If it comes back, I’ll just go and get operated on. I’ll plough through it.”

A few weeks ago, a doctor who was reading Tommy’s notes said the Fraserburgh man must be “bulletproof” to survive everything he’s been through.

A group photo of Tommy with his extended family.
Tommy surrounded by his family. Image: Supplied by Tommy Neilson

Tommy, however, puts it down to his support network, and his wife Margaret who is always by his side.

“I’ve always felt fortunate,” he says. “I’ve gotten down a few times in the past, but I’ve always been able to give myself a shake, pick myself up and get going.

“I’m very lucky to be alive.”

For anyone affected by suicide, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. The Prevent Suicide app is available for download at the App Store and Google Play. In the north-east it is also available on Amazon for Kindles.