Ken Reid's darkest night after being told he had cancer
As he prepares to return to TV screens, UTV's veteran political editor Ken Reid tells Ivan Little of his cancer battle and the terrific support he received
UTV's highly-respected political editor Ken Reid is returning to Northern Ireland's television screens after a lengthy battle against cancer.
The veteran journalist said that after receiving positive results following "amazing" treatment from medics, he can't wait to end his enforced exile from Stormont next week - even though the Assembly's politicians aren't going back to work.
As for the 'health' of the stalled Executive, Ken's prognosis is that he is "confident" the power-sharing Executive can be revived, though not any time soon.
But he knows the hard way about how to play the waiting game.
The 63-year-old TV stalwart announced on social media last November that he had been diagnosed with a form of leukaemia "almost by accident".
After a holiday in Ibiza, Ken, who is a type 2 diabetic, went for a check-up with a podiatrist about a foot infection.
He revealed: "I was asked to go to Antrim Area hospital for a blood test which apparently revealed an abnormality that necessitated a second test.
"An hour later I was told that I had leukaemia. It was as quick as that."
A terrified Ken was immediately admitted to hospital.
He recalled: "It was the darkest night of my life. I feared the worst, especially in the lonely wee small hours. I knew I wasn't going to see the consultant until the morning.
"However, he was a fantastic guy and he asked me what questions I had for him. My first query was 'if there was any hope' for me.
"He told me there was loads of hope. He laid it on the line that there was no cure for the form of leukaemia I had. But he said it could be treated and that with any luck they would try to give me a normal life expectancy.
"I felt completely different after talking to him."
Ken underwent a lengthy series of tests as medics sought to assess the extent of his illness and how to deal with it.
The most worrying test was to establish if the cancer had mutated into his bones. The results didn't come back for two or three weeks.
Ken added: "It was a massive relief to be told that the cancer hadn't mutated. But then the medical teams had to decide what type of treatment would be best for me.
"They suggested that I should undergo a clinical trial because they said there'd been encouraging results in the past. One of the doctors told me I'd have nothing to lose by taking the trial because if it didn't work they had plenty of other tools in the box.
"So I opted to go for it. The trial is conducted from Leeds University, which is the world centre of excellence for the treatment of cancer."
Ken was transferred to the Bridgewater Suite, the haematology unit, at Belfast City Hospital.
He said: "I was told I would have to take tablets for five years but I had to have six infusions of heavy doses of chemotherapy that involved being on a drip from 9am to 7pm on Fridays."
The chemo left Ken exhausted and lacking in concentration, and because his immune system was so low he was advised to stay at home to reduce the risk of an infection "which could have killed me".
The long and bleak winter was tough for Ken, but he says the staff at the Bridgewater Suite were magnificent, not only in their care for him but also in their support for his family.
"They were a different class," said Ken, whose admiration for all the medical teams who looked after him is boundless.
"People criticise the NHS and the waiting lists and they're absolutely right to do that. But the staff are under enormous pressure and, having had to stay in hospital for quite a while, I could see the strain on them."
Ken still goes to the Bridgewater Suite once a month for check-ups as part of his clinical trial which is called Flair and so far the results have been positive.
He added: "A person's normal white cell count is between four and 10. But when my leukaemia was diagnosed, mine was 215. I was there three weeks ago and my white cell count was down to 7.2 which is some difference.
"So it would appear that the treatment is working. But I can never say I've beaten leukaemia. You have to learn to live with it. It's a life sentence rather than a death sentence.
"One of the things that I have learnt is that when you get the diagnosis, human nature says you panic, it's such an enormous thing. But cancer treatment has progressed dramatically down the years.
"At my second infusion, a nurse who was retiring that day after 20 years said the big difference from the past was that more and more people were walking out of the hospital. They were recovering and surviving.
"However, I know there are many, many people who are less fortunate than me. You hear of people who die within weeks of a diagnosis of other forms of cancer."
Former newspaperman Ken has experienced an unexpected side-effect from his treatment - a hernia which will be operated on next month.
"You just don't know where things are going to go," added Ken, a father-of-three, whose illness has been difficult for his family as well as for him.
"It's been a journey into the great unknown for all of us. But from the very outset my family were invited into any of the consultations if they wanted to come, which meant they were completely up to date."
Ken has tried to be philosophical about his leukaemia, trying to use mindfulness - living in the moment - to bolster his resolve not to give way to depression.
"You can't change the past and you can't predict your own future so it's best to try to live in the moment," he adds.
After Ken posted the news of his cancer on Facebook he received 1,800 messages wishing him well.
"It was a real pick-me-up," he said.
Rival broadcasters from BBC NI have been frequent morale-boosting visitors and politicians from every party in Northern Ireland have either sent messages or called to see him in person.
Former Secretary of State James Brokenshire (below), who has also been fighting cancer, is still in touch with Ken, who says he set himself goals during his recovery. One was to fly to England to visit his daughter Sophie, which he did.
Another target has been getting back to work, even though there were spells that he had no interest in the news.
"That was quite something after 42 years in the business," added Ken. "Happily that came back and I became obsessive once more. I realised I was getting better when I started shouting at the TV again."
Ken was also swiftly back in analytical mode.
He added: "Brexit has changed everything. I said after the referendum result that I felt the constitutional question would be opening up and that's what has happened. There are times now when issues like health and education aren't mentioned but things like an all-Ireland border poll regularly come to the fore."
Despite the frustration over the Stormont stalemate, Ken, who spent hours during his recuperation watching the "fascinating" live feed of the RHI inquiry, believes power-sharing will return.
"I'm still confident but I don't think it will be quick. It's hard to see it coming back before Brexit or some sort of solution," he said.
Ken said his ITV bosses in London and Belfast have been "outstanding" in the way they've shown understanding and patience over his illness.
And he hopes to work a couple of days a week, starting next Monday.
"I don't know if I'll be capable of going back full-time but one thing I am determined to cover is the Conservative Party conference in England at the end of September. It's my 25th year in the Westminster lobby so I want to mark that," he said.
Ironically, it was at Tory party conferences that Ken fell ill, not once but twice.
He felt unwell after last year's gathering but in 2012 he "wasn't right" and the reason, it transpired, was a complication with his diabetes in the shape of a foot ulcer. It led to Ken having a toe amputated and a vein by-pass in his leg. Ballymena-based Ken was confined to a wheelchair for six months.
Then, as now, his wife of 39 years, Liz was a tower of strength and their three children were an invaluable source of support too.
Ken also said music - especially the songs of his hero Van Morrison - kept his spirits up along with his sporting interests.
He supports Cliftonville and Everton football clubs and is a passionate follower of Ulster Rugby.
He added: "The guys from my local rugby club in Ballymena have been magnificent. And it was great to be back at a game at Eaton Park recently even though we lost to Queen's.
"My minister, the Rev Mark McConnell from St Patrick's church in Ballymena, has been very supportive as well. We had some pretty big conversations in the bad times, as you can imagine."
During the bleakest hours too, Ken, who normally interrogates other people, said he was asking himself some searching questions, and the future he was pondering had nothing to do with Stormont.