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Co Down father-of-three: 'I delayed going to the doctor... telling my children I was ill was so traumatic'

Father-of-three Tim Kerr (60), from Holywood, tells Stephanie Bell how he learnt in the cruellest way that it's better to seek medical advice as soon as possible... and why he's now on a mission to warn others

Co Down dad-of-three Tim Kerr has been through a traumatic few years since being diagnosed with an advanced stage of bowel cancer. Tim (60), who was forced through illness to retire last year from his job as arts programme co-ordinator at Ulster University, had classic symptoms which he ignored.

He will never know whether the outcome would have been better for him if only he had acted more quickly.

Of course, ironically he now appreciates all too well that early diagnosis of bowel cancer saves lives and with the disease affecting many more men than women, he has been helping to spread the word on awareness as well as raising much needed funds for research.

That’s the reason he is throwing his weight behind a new celebrity backed campaign for Bowel Cancer UK urging men in Northern Ireland to grow a beard during the month of December.

Decembeard is calling on local men to ditch their shavers for the month to help beat the disease which is the second biggest cancer killer of men in Northern Ireland.

Sports broadcaster Jim Rosenthal, celebrity chef Brian Turner CBE and Olympian Carl Hester MBE are all preparing to support the campaign.

Those taking part are asked to do a clean shave on November 30 and then let their facial fuzz grow throughout the month. Even men who already have a beard can support the drive by dying, ditching or decorating their facial hair.

More than 600 men are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Northern Ireland each year but the good news is that it’s an illness that is treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early.

Tim, from Holywood, who has come through numerous surgeries in the past few years after his cancer spread to his liver and lungs, is grateful to be enjoying some normality again.

A scan two weeks ago showed that he is clear of cancer and a new appreciation of life has compelled him to do his bit to help create awareness.

He gives talks to local groups on the risks and is now sharing his experience in the hope of encouraging others and highlighting symptoms.

It has been a traumatic few years not just for Tim but also for his family, wife Alice (58), who works as a freelance fundraising consultant for the voluntary sector, and their children Rose (24), Clara (22) and Fergus (18).

Looking back, Tim freely admits he should have sought medical advice sooner: “I had two of the classic symptoms of bowel cancer but of course I didn’t know that at the time. I was bleeding and had irregular bowel movements. Like a lot of men I chose to put it down to unknown circumstances and thought it would clear up itself. I didn’t know they were classic symptoms of bowel cancer and I procrastinated for a couple of months before I went to my GP.

“The irony of it all now is that I do talks for Bowel Cancer UK to raise awareness of the fact that identification of the disease increases survival rates. If I knew then what I know now I’d never have delayed going to the doctor.”

Tim’s GP picked up immediately on the urgency of his symptoms and within two weeks he had a test which confirmed he did indeed have bowel cancer. 

That diagnosis in October 2012 was confirmed shortly afterwards with a scan which also showed that the cancer was an advanced Stage 4 and had spread into his liver.

“As many as 98% of people with Stage 1 and 2 are cured, but the outlook is not so good if you are Stage 4, so really I shouldn’t be here at all.”

The shock of his diagnosis was made worse by the fact that he knew it would be devastating news for his children.

He says: “After being told all I could think about was how on earth I would tell my children. It was like spending two hours sitting looking down the barrel of a gun. It was very traumatic and quite horrific and that’s why I warn people not to let themselves get into that position.”

Tim had to undergo surgery to remove the tumour in his bowel and following a period of recovery, he faced more surgery to remove the cancer cells from his liver. He feels grateful that his cancer was operable and doctors were happy they had removed all of the diseased cells.

To ensure that any missed cells could not thrive he then underwent six months of chemotherapy from February until August 2013. “Chemotherapy gives you a good old bashing and even when it is finished it is a bit of time before you get back to feeling normal again,” he says.

“It has a cumulative effect and it also affected the feeling in the tips of my fingers and toes. Sometimes I couldn’t even hold a knife and fork and also going outside was very uncomfortable.

“Throughout it all the staff in the Ulster Hospital were fantastic. I just couldn’t find the words to convey how brilliant they were, not only when it came to supporting me but being there for my whole family.”

Fortunately the surgery and treatment appeared to work and Tim gradually recovered and returned to work. Consequently, just as life appeared to be getting back to normal, it was a huge blow when a year later, during a routine scan, another tumour was picked up in his liver.

A complication after surgery when he developed a clot led to him having to be rushed into theatre again for an emergency operation and he was left critically ill in intensive care.

He says: “It was at my 18-month scan towards the end of 2014 when they picked up another tumour and again I was lucky because they could operate.

“This time it was a much more risky surgery because they had to remove 70% of my liver and in order for your liver to function you need at least 30%.

“I developed a clot which led to complications and I had to have emergency surgery the next day.

“The first two or three nights when I was in ICU the surgeon was saying he didn’t know how it was going to go, and that it was touch and go.

“I was in ICU for a month and it is incredible how much you waste away.

“When I came round my voice was weak and I couldn’t move. I had to learn to walk again and was in hospital for three months in total.”

Unfortunately Tim’s journey was not over yet and even though he recovered enough to again return to work, he was stunned at another scan towards the end of 2016 to be told there was a tumour in his lung.

Again, he felt fortunate that they were able to operate but by now his body was so weak that he had no option but to retire from his job last year. Thankfully he has been cancer free ever since.

He is scanned every six months and just two weeks ago had his latest scan which confirmed he was clear of cancer, marking a significant milestone as the longest period he has been free of the disease since his original diagnosis.

Tim fills his days now with voluntary work in his local community, fundraising and giving talks for Bowel Cancer UK.

Throughout what has been a tough and painful journey he says the hardest thing to deal with was watching his family go through it with him.

“The surgeries and treatment and recuperating I could tolerate but what I couldn’t deal with was the pain which family and friends had to go through,” he explains.

“The most ghastly bit for me was watching my children and wife having to deal with it. You try and protect them from the worst of it but my wife and I decided early on to be honest with our children and I think that was the right thing to do.

“It has changed all of our lives and for me, if anything, that’s the bit that makes me angriest, the fact that others have to suffer with you and it scars them as well.”

These days he is embracing life with his wife: “I believe in optimism and that vitality is important, as well as being positive. I am looking after myself with diet and exercise and I have a determination that I am going to beat this thing.

“If I could say anything to anyone going through it now, it would be to never give up and always believe you can get to the far end.”

Tim adds: “And if I can alert people to recognise the symptoms and get an early diagnosis through giving talks for Bowel Cancer UK, even if it saves just one life, that would be so worthwhile and only a small gesture on my part.

“Fundraising is so important too and although I’ve never had a beard I believe in leading from the front and will be supporting the new campaign in December.”

To support Decembeard go to bowelcanceruk.org.uk/decembeard

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