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Ken Lowry had no symptoms so when he was told he could have rare cancer 'it was like dropping a bombshell'

Ken Lowry was stunned when he received his own diagnosis, but the ex-referee is happy to be backing Cancer Research UK's Right Now campaign

By Stephanie Bell

As former referee Ken Lowry faithfully follows the fortunes of his two Irish League footballer sons, he is still very much focused on his own future and that is why he is backing Cancer Research UK's new Right Now campaign.

The Limavady father-of-three, who also recently became a grandfather for the first time, was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer which has brought uncertainty into his life.

However, while doctors can't forecast exactly how the disease could develop in the future because it is so rare, Ken remains positive and refuses to allow it to impact on the joy of everyday family life.

The powerful and emotive Right Now television, poster and radio campaign, which was launched with a TV advert at Christmas, aims to show the reality of cancer for patients just like Ken, their friends and family.

Ken also has lots to look forward to. His eldest son Stephen (30), who plays football for Linfield, got married last year to Camilla and they now have a beautiful daughter Eve, who will soon celebrate her first birthday.

Son Philip (27), who plays for Crusaders, is planning to get married next July to his fiancee Elaine and Ken's daughter Gemma (26), who works as a nurse in the cancer unit in Altnagelvin Hospital, also recently got engaged and is planning her wedding for next August.

Ken, who worked for 39 years as a manager with a local manufacturing company and had to retire after his cancer diagnosis, is well known for his service to football.

He was a member of the North West Referees' Association for 15 years from 1992 until 2007, refereeing across the province mainly as an intermediate referee and then as Premier League assistant.

Married to Clare for 31 years, Ken has been through a tough few years since being diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the appendix in January 2014.

Adenocarcinoma rarely shows symptoms and unknown to Ken he had been living with it for six years before he was diagnosed.

"I just had a niggling pain in the right side of my abdomen which kept coming and going," he says.

"I went to my local doctor in January 2014 and he referred me for tests and I had a number of tests and then a CT scan which showed up fluid in my stomach.

"I was then referred for a biopsy. I went for the test on my own as I was so fit and healthy at the time I didn't suspect anything could be seriously wrong.

"I was jogging every day and I didn't have any symptoms and I just didn't believe I was sick. When he told me he suspected I could have a rare form of cancer it was like dropping a bombshell."

Ten days later when his results were due it was a bitter sweet day for the family as his daughter had just been offered her first nursing job at Altnagelvin and was going for her induction on the same day Ken was due to have his biopsy results.

"We all went to the hospital together and my daughter was really excited about her new job," says Ken.

"My wife was with me and when they told us the news, we just looked at each other and couldn't believe it.

"My daughter was coming out bouncing from her induction and she got into the car and probably knew by our faces. Telling my family was horrendous. As a dad you feel you should be invincible.

"Because the cancer is so rare I had to be referred to a specialist centre at New Hampshire Hospital in Basingstoke and I had to wait three months to go there. I had no real answers but plenty of questions."

When he did see a specialist in March, Ken was told the cancer had spread into the lining of his stomach and was touching several major organs.

He faced surgery which is so complex his consultant told him doctors commonly refer to it as "the mother of all surgeries".

During 10 hours in the operating theatre he had his gall bladder removed and part of his spleen, as well as part of his large bowel, the top of his liver scraped and he also underwent an unusual procedure called a "hot wash" which involved flushing his stomach with chemotherapy heated to 43 degrees. "They pump the chemo round you for an hour to flush out any remaining cancer cells," Ken says. "It was horrendous, a really tough operation and you have to meet quite strict criteria apparently before they will consider you for the operation. I think because I was physically fit it made a difference.

"The consultant was very reassuring. I had to undergo intense chemotherapy when I got back home and he told me there was no reason why I shouldn't be able to live a normal life."

The surgery was a success and doctors were satisfied they had removed all of the disease from Ken's body, but as a safeguard they recommended chemotherapy in case any cells remained.

Ken was to receive eight treatments every three weeks, but unfortunately he had such an adverse reaction to the treatment that it had to be stopped half way through.

"After four cycles I suffered a reaction and developed peripheral neuropathy which damages the nerve endings in your fingers and toes," he says.

"I couldn't touch anything cold and had to wear gloves in the house and the soles of my feet were also affected. Thankfully it has eased off a bit now."

Ken has been receiving regular six-month check-ups since his treatment in 2014 and in September last year he suffered a setback when he was told that some of the cancer cells appeared to have returned.

While it was a blow he is remaining optimistic. "They spotted a very small amount of fluid again, just two or three spots the size of a penny," he says.

"They have told me it could shrink on its own or if it gets bigger I might need chemo again. I have another scan on March 17 and will know then.

"If the chemo doesn't work they can do surgery so I'm happy enough because I've got a plan and if it does increase again at least I know they can do something about it.

"It did knock me back a bit and even though I am in limbo I just have to keep positive.

"I keep myself busy and I have to be strong for my family and by keeping busy I am not lying about the house thinking about my illness.

"What lies ahead is in the back of your mind, you can't help that but you have to get on with life and look forward and remember that I have a plan to get it fixed if it has come back."

Ken volunteers one day a week with his local Meals on Wheels service and also keeps fit by walking.

He retired from refereeing when his two sons started their football careers and he enjoys following both teams.

He adds: "My family are my reason for getting up and keeping busy every day. I've been married to Clare for 31 years and she has been brilliant through this very difficult time in our relationship. She's spurs me on.

"I'm delighted to talk about it and if it helps others that's great. My experience means I understand all too clearly why Cancer Research UK's work is so important.

"That's why I'm backing the Right Now campaign and I'm urging people across Northern Ireland to get involved in whatever way they can, to help fund Cancer Research UK's crucial work."

Cancer Research UK's Right Now campaign aims to shine a light on the men, women and children across the UK who are facing their own cancer journeys.

It features a series of moving films - showing real patients in real-life moments - which call on supporters to take action right now in the fight against cancer.

Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Northern Ireland, says: "We are so grateful to Ken for sharing his cancer story.

"There are many moments which encapsulate a person's cancer journey and our Right Now campaign aims to shine a light on the reality of cancer.

"Every hour, someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer. That's why we're working every day to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. But we can't do it alone. We hope our new campaign will inspire people to take action, right now, and play their part in beating cancer sooner."

One in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in their lives, but the good news is more people are surviving the disease now than ever before.

Survival has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK. But to help continue this progress, Cancer Research UK needs everyone in Northern Ireland to act right now.

Jean adds: "There are so many ways to show your support. From signing up to Race for Life, donating items to one of our shops or giving time to volunteer. Every action makes a difference and money raised helps to support Cancer Research UK's life-saving work."

For more information go to http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/rightnow-campaign

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