Irish man (43) on learning he had bowel cancer just before he was to become a father
Just before his 40th birthday, and months before he was about to become a father, Shane Kirwan learned he had bowel cancer. He tells how this disease can be beaten, especially when it is diagnosed in the early stages
Shane Kirwan (43) has a message, and he wants you to hear it loud and clear. It's this - if you have any concerns at all about your health, then check it out. He believes if he hadn't gone to the doctor when he did, he might not be alive today.
Shane, who grew up in Drimnagh, Dublin, has two brothers and two stepsisters. When he was just 16 he went to live in Jersey. "That was the 1980s and everyone was leaving," he says, "including my brothers."
Shane found work in the building industry and began to learn about special house-painting techniques. A few years later he moved to London. Then came a seven-month stint in Corfu, where he clearly had a very good time.
"I was working the bars and doing a bit of PR to get the customers in," he says. "It's all a bit of a blur but I'm told I had a good time."
In 1992, the brothers began to drift home. While his siblings ran the family business, a discount store, Shane got a job in St James's Hospital as a porter. He then ended up working in the mortuary, preparing bodies for viewing by the families or in readiness for autopsies. He wasn't spooked by the work; on the contrary, he found it quite interesting and even sat in on a couple of "fascinating" autopsies.
Then, about 12 years ago, he changed direction. "My brother went to live in Northern Ireland, so I began running the business. That was during the boom, when we were all told we were multimillionaires," he quips. "When the downturn came we were, thankfully, still able to pay the bills."
In September 2011, Shane began to feel uncomfortable. "I was constipated and had had slight stomach cramps for about five days. I went to see Dr John O'Connell, an old family friend.
"He examined my abdomen and afterwards suggested I have a colonoscopy. 'We'll get to the bottom of this,' was his little joke."
Shane was referred to St James's Hospital. In the meantime, he kept busy, running the shop - where toilet rolls and reading glasses were the best sellers - and helping Michael D Higgins in his presidential election bid. On October 27, 2011, Shane had a colonoscopy; later that day Michael D Higgins was declared President-elect of Ireland. At the time, Shane's daughter was about to be born, so he had plenty to distract him from any health concerns. In fact, he had put the colonoscopy to the back of his mind. But then Delia Flannery, the hospital's cancer specialist nurse, asked to see him. "A terrible numbness came over me," says Shane. "I knew it was bad news."
Nonetheless, he went to see her without telling anyone.
During the colonoscopy, a small polyp had been found. That was removed and a subsequent biopsy revealed it was cancerous. A diagnosis of early stage bowel cancer was made. "Delia did a drawing to show me where the polyp was found and she did some blood tests. The next morning I came in with my brother Gavin. I remember sitting in the waiting room and there were all these posters about cancer on the walls and my daughter was about to be born. It was so surreal."
After that, Shane was seen by Mr James O Riordan, a consultant colorectal surgeon. Shane learned that because there was concern about residual cancer in the affected segment of the gut, a bowel 'resection' still needed to be done.
This would remove a portion of bowel around the area where the polyp had been found, to make sure all cancerous cells had been removed. It would also remove the surrounding lymph nodes. The remaining bowel would then be rejoined.
Shane was still in shock. "Is this going to kill me?" he asked the surgeon. "No it's not," was the very definite response. He was told he could choose not to have the operation in the hope that the cancer wouldn't come back. So Shane asked the consultant this: "If I was your brother, what would you tell me to do?"
"And, he said, he would advise me to have the operation. That was good enough for me," says Shane.
Shortly after, the surgeon did Shane's second colonoscopy and removed what turned out to be a benign lesion. On December 5, Shane was admitted to St James's Hospital and was prepared for surgery - tensions were at a high as his daughter was expected to be born six days later. When he woke up, he was in agony because they couldn't give him morphine until he regained consciousness (because of another medical condition). But once the drug had been administered, he was in "flying form".
So much so, the day after surgery, Shane managed to make his way downstairs to the hospital shop and the following day he was discharged. He then went with his partner to the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, to wait anxiously for the birth.
"A couple of hours later, Heidi was born. Seeing her made me want to be a much better person," says Shane.
His brush with death also changed his thinking about life. "When you've had a diagnosis of cancer, you develop a low tolerance for bullshit," he says. "Other cancer survivors say the same thing."
He has also embarked on a BA degree specialising in psychology. "I've always been interested in why we do things," he explains. He hopes to become a grief counsellor one day. One thing he has definitely learned is that this disease can be beaten.
"I'm living proof that bowel cancer doesn't kill, if you catch it in time. If you have rectal bleeding or abdominal pain, get it checked out straight away. If I'd left it, it would have been a whole different scenario and I definitely wouldn't be here now."
He believes men are more prone to neglecting their health, so this advice is meant for the lads. "It's OK to say you are not feeling OK," Shane says.
"There are many excellent medical treatments these days. So please go and see your GP as soon as any symptoms appear or any doubts about your health arise in your mind. Cancer is not a death sentence anymore."
Finally, Shane concludes with a thought about his lovely daughter. "I'm really enjoying being a dad and, if I hadn't gone for that check-up, I might never have had these wonderful experiences taking Heidi to play in the park and to Stephen's Green to feed the ducks."
To speak to a specialist cancer nurse, freefone the Irish Cancer Society's national helpline. Tel: (1800) 200-700, or see cancer.ie
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