A can-do attitude to count on

Peter Branker. INBL0313-BRANKER
Peter Branker. INBL0313-BRANKER

ONE of the district’s most prolific charity workers, Peter Branker, is not one to shy away from hard work - or difficult conversations.

Having suffered from - and recovered from - three different types of cancer on three separate occasions, he now spends a large chunk of his life discussing the disease with those going through the cancer ‘journey’ for the first time.

Now aged 41, he has been battling the disease since he was a teenager and although he has survived, the disease left him with one ‘seeing’ eye and one ‘real’ leg following invasive, life-saving surgery.

His spirit remains undiminished though and, shortly after being notified he was in line for a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s New Year Honours List just after Christmas, Peter took time out from his 17 charity and community groups (he thinks that is the number, “roundabouts”) to chat about what motivates him to motivate others.

In addition to volunteering for worthy causes, he has now embarked on a counselling course through the University of Ulster at the Southern Regional College in Banbridge and also a Macmillan Cancer Care course which covers a variety of skills in communication, counselling and loss and bereavement.

In between times, he works as a leader at Dromore Youth Club and helps out with groups including Macmillan Cancer Care, Dromore-based community charity, ‘Via Wings’ and ‘Dromore in Action’. He also takes a leading role in Ballymacormack Rural Development Association, Cancer Research ‘Relay for Life’ event and the Alzheimer’s Society.

You might think that would be more than enough to satisfy even those with the most bristling of social consciences, but Peter, a qualified accountant, has just recently requested time to talk to amputee patients at Musgrave Park Hospital.

“I have spoken to patients before and have been told they found what I had to say helpful, so I am happy to speak from my own personal experience again,” he says. “I think it always helps to hear first-hand accounts from someone who has been there and gone through the same range of fears and emotions.”

Strangely, he never gets tired of his relentless mission to help others, nor discouraged by the cruel hand life has dealt him.

“What is the point?” he asks without rancour. “I have always been a positive person and really, that is the only way you get through things. I was brought up with a ‘can do’ attitude and my mother, in particular, was always a real ‘goer’ who just got on with things.

“My leg was amputated in 1989 and I have never shed a tear since.”

Such stoicism may have been in Peter’s genes, but it was only after a mugging in Belfast two years ago that his resolve really bedded in. It was a sort of epiphany for the hardworking accountant who suddenly decided to give up his day job and do something more gratifying instead.

“It was really strange,” he recalls. “I had been working as an accountant with a Belfast firm for 20 years and when I was mugged I suddenly realised I wasn’t happy in the job. I suffered head injuries, but somehow it made me see things more clearly. It made me rethink everything and made me see what was really in important in life, so I took a change of direction and haven’t looked back.”

Peter’s first brush with cancer came when he was 13 and had a lump around his eye tissue removed. It turned out to be a rare form of soft tissue cancer - synovial sarcoma - which required blasts of radiotherapy and chemotherapy and eventually cost him his sight in that eye.

Some years later he had to cope with another rare form of bone cancer which resulted in his amputation surgery and then, one and-a-half years ago, he was diagnosed with a form of skin cancer on his face.

Like his charity groups, he has almost lost count of the number of operations he has gone through, but thinks it is 16 in total. “My father, step-father and grandfather all died from cancer, so I suppose I wasn’t that shocked,” he says.

Despite everything, he wouldn’t change a thing. “I feel I am meant to talk to people going through the various stages of cancer and my goal is to ease their burden,” he adds. “At the start, people are frightened, angry, in denial and generally negative about the whole process.

“I help them find hope within themselves and then they can start to heal. I think things happen for a reason and cancer is a very cruel disease, but it can make you a better, stronger person when you come out the other side.”

Today, life is busier than ever, but if it all seems too much like hard work, would he ever go back to his desk job working with numbers? “No, definitely not,” he says, affronted; “not unless it was an accountancy job with a charity.”