Belfast Telegraph

'People bury their head in the sand, but there's no hiding from cancer'

Lisburn man Colin Henderson knows cancer can strike anyone - he, his wife and daughter have all been diagnosed with the disease. He is full of praise for NHS staff who treated them, but warns that everyone should heed any unusual symptoms

Colin Henderson after receiving his MBE with wife Joan and daughters Clare Tayler (left) and Jenny Dalzell
Colin Henderson after receiving his MBE with wife Joan and daughters Clare Tayler (left) and Jenny Dalzell

I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2017 after first noticing the symptoms in early September. Initially that meant dramatic weight lose - a kilogramme per week - severe indigestion, which I normally wouldn't suffer from at all, followed by bouts of diarrhoea and jaundice.

It was then that I began a process of investigation at the Royal Victoria Hospital. They put me through a number of scans, which determined that I did, in fact, have pancreatic cancer. It is known as the silent killer and it has taken the lives of many men, including Steve Jobs.

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer come on late, which obviously makes it very difficult to survive.

But a friend of mine actually died from the same disease, so I was aware of it, particularly that it affects those over 60 much more than younger men. That was my age group at the time of my diagnosis - I'm 69 and a retired youth officer for the South Eastern Education and Library Board.

So when I started losing weight, I thought that I may have it and I was very lucky that my GP was very proactive when I first went to him with my concerns, as were the doctors in the Royal Victoria Hospital.

They diagnosed me very quickly and said initially that they would put me through chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink the tumour on the pancreas.

Because I have always been very fit for my age - I'm an active, outdoorsy type person who went to the gym often - they decided to go straight to surgery, whipple surgery, a major five-hour operation involving the pancreas, the stomach, the intestine and the spleen.

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It involves re-plumbing, to put it mildly, and it's going to take a long time to get back to normality and my previous fitness levels.

I've got to build my strength up until Christmas and subsequently I'll go through six months of chemotherapy and maybe radiotherapy.

It's a process that I've lived through before, when my wife Joan (66) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2000 and my daughter Jenny (35) was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of this year. She's still very sick.

Jenny had her last radiotherapy session on the Monday and I had my first operation on the Tuesday.

I couldn't believe that we had all been struck down with cancer. Part of you thinks, Why me? What have I done to deserve this, when I'm healthy and active and a positive member of my local community? There is no answer to that.

There is no-one to blame, no-one to kick.

You just have to take it on the chin and deal with it.

My wife is now in remission, as they call it, which means that she's unlikely to fall victim to the same cancer again, but that there is no guarantee that she won't.

Joan was a primary school teacher but she had to retire because her head is now held up with steel plates - the cancer attacked the vertebrae in her neck. But she's an inspiration.

She has remained remarkably positive since day one and we've all learned from that.

She realised that she needed something else to do in life and so she learned woodturning and is now a very talented craftsperson. She sells all of her items for charity and raises £2,000 per year.

We are a close family. We also have a daughter living in Glasgow, Claire (37), who works as a teacher, and she has been checked up since my diagnosis. People need to get checked early and often and I consider myself in a privileged position now to be able to at least raise awareness. That is the first step. The website is an invaluable source of information. 

I think people like to bury their head in the sand and hope that illness will go away. Not just here in Northern Ireland but in most places.

But there is no hiding from cancer. Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive form of cancer and the earlier it is diagnosed, the more chance you have of living through it.

The aging population of Northern Ireland need to be aware of their physical health and the support that is out there for them.

They need to keep themselves as healthy as possible. There is no guarantee that you won't get cancer - I was a very active, healthy person and I got it - but by keeping myself fit and healthy, it means that I'm in a much better physical position to deal with it.

Just before I was diagnosed, I completed a six-hour mountain marathon.

I did the Lap of the Lough and took part in the Northern Ireland Orienteering Championships.

I understand that some people might think, 'well, he was healthy and he still got cancer, so I'm going to live how I want to live'.

But to those people I would say, you're living dangerously. They are talking about cancer hitting one in two people in the near future and that is a frightening statistic. 

It should be a wake up call to everybody - to get out, get active, prepare your body for the very real prospect that it might have to battle cancer.

And please don't feel that you're wasting a GP's time in bringing up any concerns that you might have. They are there for a reason. The NHS is a wonderful thing. 

The doctors and nurses who operated on me, the MacMillan nurses who are always just a phone call away, everyone who played a part in my treatment and the treatment of my wife and daughter has been unbelievably helpful, but it goes both ways.

People can't just rely on the NHS, they need to put themselves in the best possible position to help themselves.

Think about your health, exercise more, smoke and drink less.

If the worst happens, you won't regret it.

Belfast Telegraph


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