Keith Hern, a keen photographer, fell victim to the disease in 2007 and took time out to speak to the Foundation about his experience.
“I have such a vivid recollection of the day I found out”, Keith said. “It was the last Friday in May when I received the phone call that changed my life. When you’re told ‘you have cancer’, I defy anyone not to have pure naked fear running through their emotions.”
Diagnosed with a lump in the side of his neck, Keith lived a lifestyle that would put him in the ‘risk’ category. Although Keith kept himself fit, he was a regular smoker for 24 years, drank alcohol regularly and was not very careful about his diet. All of these factors are known to contribute towards increasing the risk of mouth cancer.
Keith was first alerted to the possibility that something wasn’t quite right after a conversation in the kitchen drew his attention to his neck. It turned out to be the catalyst for life-saving treatment.
He said: ‘My wife and I were in the kitchen chatting away when for no apparent reason I touched the side of my neck only to feel the smallest of lumps. I didn’t think anything of it but my wife suggested it would sensible to get it checked out. I had always been a very fit and healthy person. The last time I’d taken any time off work prior to this was in 1983 when I had Tonsillitis, so as you can imagine, being told I had cancer came as quite a shock.” That small lump, it transpired, was the secondary tumour.
One of the lasting memories Keith described was the uncertainty. He told of how Doctors kept him very well informed of the treatment and the need for surgery, radiotherapy and, in his case, intense Chemotherapy. Yet his journey to recovery was an unknown. However, Keith’s love for photography led him to document his treatment in a very unique way.
Keith explained: “I knew I was going to have my throat poisoned and burned for the next six months, and that the radiotherapy would dry out my saliva producing gland therefore making it impossible for me to eat.
Sure enough I lost my appetite and the ability to taste, and because all I could consume was liquids, plus having to sip water all day everyday due to the dry mouth I no longer slept properly so tired out very quickly. I knew all of this was going to happen, so I chose to have photographs taken along the way. Some people find solace in writing and keeping a diary of what they’re going through, but I wanted to see what was going on so photographed the treatment as well as keeping a diary. Looking back, I cannot imagine the horror my family went through.”
After the radiotherapy finished, and having not been able to eat for six weeks, I was in the pub with a couple of friends who’d helped me set up my photo exhibition. I ordered the usual mineral water and soup, but for the first time felt like trying some ‘real food’ so asked if I could try some of theirs. “My first mouthful of real food was Bangers and Mash. It didn’t go down too well, but I managed it. That was the point I knew I was on the road to recovery. It was a small change, but with major significance as it was the first sign I was on the up, and what a fantastic feeling that was. This was the incident I used to start the book, which by now I was convinced could be of help to other people suffering with head or neck cancer, or in fact any cancer as the mental effect of diagnosis is the same regardless of the type of cancer.”
‘Bangers and Mash’ and the presentation version ‘Out of Adversity’ tells the story of Keith’s journey to recovery. From tales of warmth and adversity, to the hardest times of the treatment his book is designed to help others going through the same ordeal remain strong and tackle cancer head on. It even shows the importance of those rare humorous events in the process. Since going on sale in 2009, Keith hopes to have made a difference to those who find themselves in the same situation as him. Indeed judging by the testimonials his book has received it seems many readers have found the book very useful.
“My advice to everyone is to watch your lifestyle, remain positive and mentally strong through the experience, and probably most importantly, live for today, as you don’t know what tomorrow will bring you.”