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'Being told I'd prostate cancer was tough, but I'd coped with worse... I'd already lost my son'


Write support: cancer survivor James Napier with wife Maire

Write support: cancer survivor James Napier with wife Maire

Tranquil setting: James’ book is named after the north Belfast park

Tranquil setting: James’ book is named after the north Belfast park

Tranquil setting: James’ book is named after the north Belfast park

Tranquil setting: James’ book is named after the north Belfast park

Write support: cancer survivor James Napier with wife Maire

When Lisburn man James Napier tragically lost his son, then was told that he had cancer, he coped by putting pen to paper to express his feelings in a book, which is now helping to raise much-needed funds for charity.

When James Napier completed his 37th and final round of radiotherapy last summer, he decided to take the experiences of his cancer journey and turn them into a novel.

Although this might seem to be an unusual action for someone who has experienced a life-threatening illness, it wasn't the first time James had turned a deeply personal tragedy into a positive story.

"My son Michael battled with mental health issues his whole life," explains James.

"But six years ago he was taking a mixture of prescription drugs, recreational drugs and probably too much drink. He fell asleep and just didn't wake up again."

After Michael's death James put pen to paper and wrote Living On The Ledge. The novel is the story of how Attention Deficit Disorder - a condition Michael had been diagnosed with - has affected the life of a young man and his family. All of the profits of the novel went to ADD and mental health charities.

Perhaps then it's not surprising that when James was diagnosed with prostate cancer he felt that he had already lived through the worst thing that could happen to him - or indeed that he decided to write about this new difficult experience. Interestingly, too, when he showed some early drafts of his new book - to which he gave the darkly humorous title, Trouble At The Waterworks - to his GP, the doctor told him he seemed to be coping well. "In his experience people felt a lot of panic and fear when they were diagnosed with cancer but that wasn't evident in the writing that I was showing him. Writing Trouble At The Waterworks was a very different experience from Living On The Ledge - my cancer journey was affected by what had happened before.

"For most people a cancer diagnosis is the worst possible thing that could happen to them but when I received my diagnosis the worst possible thing had already happened with the death of my son."

Having worked as a teacher for most of his life, James retired as vice-principal of Wallace High School in Lisburn four years ago. Since then he has been putting his experience to good use by penning biology textbooks for GCSE and AS Level. He lives with his wife Maire near Lisburn and they have two grown-up daughters, Catherine (33) and Aisling (23).

James was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2013 after more than a year of experiencing symptoms and undergoing tests.

"I had a variety of typical symptoms that pointed towards prostate cancer but they were assumed to be because of a large benign growth, as nothing showed up on my first biopsy," he explains.

"For a year I continued to have symptoms. The doctors monitored me closely and eventually decided to give me another biopsy - my PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) tests kept showing high results and they felt that something had to be there."

James wasn't surprised when a letter arrived asking him to visit the hospital to get the results of the biopsy. "It was a different letter from all the other letters - this one said I could bring someone with me," he says. "The cancer specialist nurse came into the room after me and closed the door so after all of that I wasn't surprised to discover it was cancer."

James was diagnosed with locally advanced prostate cancer, with the biopsy revealing a tumour more than one centimetre in diameter. "Although there was an element of relief in finally having a diagnosis, there came a dicey month where I was given a lot of scans to establish if the cancer had spread to other parts of the body.

"There was no evidence of that but they've treated me as if it has spread to the local area, to be on the safe side."

As well as an intensive round of radiotherapy James was also put on a three-year course of hormone treatment to inhibit the growth of prostate cells.

"Going into the treatment, I really didn't know what to expect," he admits.

"There are a lot of side effects from the radiotherapy, fatigue being the worst, particularly if you're getting it five days a week. But what surprised me the most was the positive ethos of the Cancer Centre at the City Hospital.

"The radiologists and other staff were top class and couldn't have done more for me. And one of the reasons I decided to write the novel is because of the camaraderie I developed with other patients."

His novel, Trouble At The Waterworks, is available from the Friends Of The Cancer Centre website. Although the book draws heavily on his personal experience it is a work of fiction, telling the story of a patient with prostate cancer, from diagnosis to the end of his treatment at the Cancer Centre, plus the stories of the people he met there. As with Living On The Ledge all of the proceeds go to a charitable organisation, in this case Friends Of The Cancer Centre.

"I hadn't known before I started my treatment just how good the support I received would be and I wanted to help others receive the same kind of support," adds James.

"Writing the book was an opportunity to raise money and that figure is more than £2,000 to date."

More than a year after finishing his radiotherapy treatment, James is optimistic about the outlook.

"When I was first diagnosed I was given a 70-80% chance of surviving five years," he says. "At this stage you just hope that it's worked and that you've come out other side. The real test will be in a year's time when I stop the hormone therapy and prostate cells will be able to grow again."

Although James' cancer journey is, hopefully, at an end, his literary journey continues.

"My youngest daughter Aisling was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1996, so my next novel is based on that. I have it all mapped out now and of course all of the proceeds raised will go to diabetes charities. Very few people can understand what I went through but these books are about the reality of it and I can see the benefits they produce - they raise awareness and money."

Trouble At The Waterworks, £10, is available from www.friendsofthecancercentre.com

Belfast Telegraph