'I lost my beloved son to cancer and then faced it myself'
Author Colm Keane, who lost his son to cancer and also faced death himself has learned much about the act of dying.
For many people, Christmas is a truly magical diversion that brings relief from the drudgery of winter.
However, for author Colm Keane, it is a time of deep sorrow, as he lost his beloved son, Sean, on Christmas Day some years ago. And if that wasn't bad enough, Colm himself was given cancer diagnoses in mid-winter on two occasions in the years that followed. Nonetheless, he sees the festive season as an opportunity for intense reflection and as a time to give thanks for some very special memories.
Colm has just published his 25th book; this one is titled, Heading for the Light, which outlines "the 10 things that happen to you when you die". It's well-researched and provides much pause for thought. Given his personal experiences, it's not surprising that Colm fearlessly delves into the bowels of the unknown and faces the wrath of cynics.
He was first forced to confront the concept of death as an 11-year-old, when his father died. After boarding school, he earned a Master's in Economics at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and achieved a further postgraduate qualification at Georgetown University in Washington.
By then, he was submitting articles to Irish newspapers and soon realised that media was his true vocation. So, in 1976, he returned home and for the next 27 years, was very much part of the fabric of RTE.
In the meantime, he met Una O'Hagan, another wonderfully talented broadcaster. In time, they married; their happiness was made complete when their son Sean was born in 1987.
Life couldn't have been more perfect for this high-profile couple and their bright-as-a-button boy. "He was such a special child," says Colm. "He was a remarkable kid, who was always top of the class at Blackrock College; he won medals for everything."
When Sean began to have pains in his knee in 2005, they thought it was a sports injury, but then they discovered that he was suffering from osteosarcoma, a very serious cancerous bone tumour. By then, it had already spread to his lungs. "He fought for two and three-quarter years," says Colm. "But he died on Christmas Day seven years ago."
At the time, Colm wasn't at all sure how he and Una could survive as a couple, but survive they did, and are currently living in Waterford. He believes the trauma of losing Sean taught him as much about living as it did about dying. "Nothing I went through ever matched the intensity of that experience," he says. But fate tried hard to challenge that assertion.
In 2011, Colm began to experience difficulty swallowing and he discovered a swelling in his neck: "It felt as if a piece of apple was stuck in my throat," he says. Eventually, he was referred to David Charles, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who, following tests, diagnosed squamous cell carcinoma. By then - Christmas time - it had reached the fourth and last stage. "Not good," said the consultant before referring him to the late Professor Donal Hollywood, an eminent oncologist.
Colm says he began his consultation by telling the professor about Sean. "He put down his pen and said, 'I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen to you'."
In February, Colm was admitted to St James's Hospital and had three cycles of TPF, an "aggressive" form of chemotherapy. He then had a course of radiotherapy as an outpatient, which was also harrowing. "They make a mask for you," explains Colm, "and then you're strapped to a table and can't move your eyes or lips for 25 minutes. That was very tough."
By then, his body was decimated by the treatment, and he'd lost seven stone. "My neck and throat were like raw meat," he explains. "I was wrecked. I couldn't sleep - I was like a zombie. I worked on a book to keep myself sane - I'd dictate it to Una."
Relentlessly, Colm soldiered on. The following September, some cancerous tissue was spotted in his neck; this was removed by Prof Con Timon, a consultant head-and-neck surgeon.
The following Christmas, Prof Hollywood picked up that Colm was suffering from a recurrence of the original problem in his throat and prescribed yet more surgery. Then, the good doctor dropped a bombshell.
"He told me he was about to be admitted to hospital, as he himself had cancer," says Colm, while adding that he had nothing but total admiration for this "wonderful", selfless man.
Some time after his own surgery, Colm got a letter from Prof Hollywood wishing him well with his latest book. The next day, Colm learned that this man, who had devoted his life to helping others, had died.
These days, Colm is looking fit, lean and tanned. His hair has grown back and he is beginning to regain weight. He says his difficult journey has taught him many important lessons. "If anyone says they'll meet me after Christmas, I just laugh. So many people I knew who were well when I was sick, are now gone. If you dream of doing something, do it now. Recently, we've been to Spain to watch football; to La Scala for the opera; and we did the biblical sites in Israel. Don't squander life," he says.
Recently, Colm completed his 25th book, which is about the death experience. "I interviewed over 100 people who died and then came back to life," he explains. "When someone is dying, it's usually a warm, happy experience for that person. Even Plato told a story about a soldier who had died on the battlefield but then came back to life. There are stories of near-death experience (NDE) in all religions."
In Heading for the Light, most of those who recount having been through a near-death experience give graphic descriptions of travelling along a tunnel of some sort, of seeing beautiful bright lights and, most importantly, of having a remarkable sense of peace - a sort of peace they had never known in the mortal world. So much so, that even women who would have been "worrier" mothers before their "deaths", would rather remain in that blissful state than return to their earthly existence.
As to the argument that science can account for these sensations, Colm says: "It doesn't matter if there is a medical explanation or not - it's still going to happen when you die. There is no doubt in my mind that something continues after the heart flatlines. And who's to say God didn't give us this experience?," he asks.
'Heading for the Light' by Colm Keane is published by Capel Island, €14.99