Dublin butcher Clif Lenehan on bowel cancer diagnosis- 'The colostomy bag made me feel so unattractive and I used to fret about it'
Getting a diagnosis of cancer is always a traumatic experience. Clif Lenehan tells our reporter how he got through his ordeal by putting all his faith in his medical team, while concentrating his mind on his business
Clif Lenehan (49) is a very private man. So much so, that when he became extremely ill, he refused to tell anyone who didn't need to know. Now, however, he has decided to go public, in an effort to raise awareness about cancer and to generate funds for two very worthy causes.
People who live near the Stillorgan Village Shopping Centre, south Dublin, will undoubtedly recognise Clif, because he runs a popular local butcher's shop, Fenelon's. Clif grew up in Kilternan, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. "My dad, who was a farmer's son, went into the meat-wholesaling business, because farming didn't suit him," explains Clif. "And when I did my Leaving, I decided I wanted to become a butcher."
He did his apprenticeship by studying part-time, while working for Larry Fenelon, a family friend, who owned the butcher's shop. "He taught me all I know," Clif says. Some 20 years later, when Larry retired, Clif bought the shop. In spite of the recent economic upheavals, it continues to thrive.
Clif could not have done it without the support of his wife, Pamela. Their daughter Katie (21), who is a languages student at UCD, works part-time in the shop. It all adds up to a seemingly idyllic scenario. However, that sense of well-being was shattered in 2012, when Clif noticed blood in his stools. "Like a typical man, I thought it would go away," he admits. "But when my wife found out, she made me go to John Duignan, our family GP. He did an internal examination and some blood tests."
The tests suggested an abnormality, so Clif was sent for a colonoscopy. On October 31, he had the procedure, having fasted since the previous evening. He had also been instructed to drink a large volume of a special liquid, to cleanse his colon. When Pamela came to pick him up, she was advised to be with Clif when he got the results, so she guessed the news wasn't going to be good. And it certainly wasn't. They soon learned that Clif had a tumour in his rectum. He was referred on to Professor Des Winter, at St Vincent's Private Hospital.
"It felt like this was happening to someone else," Clif recalls. Following MRI scans, colorectal cancer was confirmed. "When I asked Professor Winter if I should be worried, he said they would sort out my body, and I should take care of my head. I felt very comforted by his tone of voice," Clif explains. Pamela then asked if the tumour was the size of a golf ball or a grapefruit. According to Clif, the latter description was made more in jest, than anything else. So they got an awful shock when the consultant replied, "A grapefruit is about right."
At the time, the couple had booked to go to the Canaries. So they were somewhat relieved when they were encouraged to go ahead with their holiday plans. "There was solace in the fact that I wasn't being rushed into hospital," says Clif. "But when we were away, it was like the elephant in the room. I tried to blank it out and enjoy the holiday. Meanwhile, Pam worried for all three of us."
When they returned home, a treatment plan had been devised. The first stage would be an attempt to shrink the tumour; the second involved surgery to remove the growth. A port was created in Clif's chest to allow chemotherapy to be delivered by drip, 24 hours a day. The chemotherapy bag was topped up once a week. Clif also had regular radiotherapy. This went on for six weeks.
Meanwhile, Clif had a staff of 16, and he needed to explain to them why he would be taking so much time off. But he didn't want news of his illness going public. "I asked them to keep quiet about it, because it was hard enough trying to deal with the illness," he explains. "And I certainly didn't want the conversation to be all about cancer." His loyal staff respected his wishes to such an extent that the news apparently never seeped out.
Clif says there was a small chance the chemo and radiotherapy would work so well that he wouldn't need surgery; but he actually wanted the surgery to remove the tumour. "I definitely did need the sense of it being physically removed," he explains.
In April 2013, the growth and some surrounding tissue were excised. "I woke up feeling I'd been trampled by a herd of elephants," he remembers. He had also been fitted with a colostomy bag, and that depressed him.
"It made me feel so unattractive," he volunteers. "And while Pam said she hardly noticed it, I used to fret that it was full and hanging over the waistband of my trousers where people could see it."
Clif's stay in hospital marked the only time in 30 years he'd been unable to show up for work. He was discharged after five days, and, in less than a week, he was already back behind the counter. But his medical treatment was by no means over. Once he was fully recovered from the surgery, he began an intense course of chemotherapy. Over a period of months, he had 10 infusions lasting 44 hours each; these were again delivered through the port in his chest.
Finally, after all that, Clif was free of cancer. The colostomy bag was removed on Friday, December 13, 2013. "I only got that slot because some people refused an operation on that day," he laughs.
This year, Fenelon's celebrates 50 years in business. Clif says some of his customers have been coming since the shop opened, while his most senior patron is 105 years old. So Clif is hosting a foodie evening to mark the anniversary of the shop, and to celebrate his recovery, by raising funds for LauraLynn, a hospice for children; and for the Blackrock Hospice.
He plans to host an entertaining, informative and fun-filled evening on March 2, at the Pavilion, at Leopardstown Race Course. Celebrity chef and LIFE columnist, Rachel Allen, will demonstrate how to cook some very special dishes, while TV3 presenter, Anna Daly, will be master of ceremonies. There will also be a number of artisan food stalls, and lots of prizes.
Clif says his recent ordeal has completely changed his view on life.
"I used to live to work, and I couldn't see beyond that. Now I am able to delegate and don't take life so seriously. You need to appreciate your time on this Earth. As someone said, 'I'm here for a good life, not necessarily a long life'."
'An Evening With Rachel Allen' takes place on Wednesday, March 2, at the Pavilion, Leopardstown Racecourse. Tickets cost €25 each and can be bought in Fenelon's Butchers, Stillorgan Village Shopping Centre, tel: (01) 288-1185, or see fenelons.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine