Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 18 July 2018

'I'm one of the lucky ones' - Mark Kenna on how his positive attitude helped him survive cancer

After being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, Mark Kenna made a decision to be positive throughout treatment, something he believes saved his life

Mark Kenna pictured on Bray beach. Photo: Joe Keogh.
Mark Kenna pictured on Bray beach. Photo: Joe Keogh.

Arlene Harris

Ireland has one of the highest rates of oesophageal cancer in Europe with 400 new cases diagnosed each year. But more worryingly, the National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NRCI) predicts this figure will double by the year 2040. However, Professor John Reynolds, national lead for oesophageal cancer, says early detection can make all the difference.

"The earlier cancer is caught, the easier it is to cure, and prevention and early diagnosis are our best strategies for the future," he says.

"We have seen an approximate doubling of improvement in the cure rate in recent years compared with a decade ago, which is very promising. There is also an increasing percentage of patients presenting with earlier stage disease, many of whom can be treated without invasive surgery or chemotherapy."

Professor Reynolds, who is also head of the Barrett's Oesophagus Register Project, believes awareness is key when it comes to battling this disease.

"A greater awareness of risk factors, including Barrett's oesophagus (a condition which can increase the risk of cancer of the oesophagus), as well as improved quality of all aspects of treatment through clinical trials, quality assurance and published outcomes, are the key cornerstones over the next decade for improving survival rates from this very difficult disease," he says.

Mark Kenna is one of the lucky survivors of oesophageal cancer. Almost five years ago, the father of six began to notice strange symptoms and, after trying to deal with them himself for several months, finally sought medical help.

"In October 2011 I had difficulty swallowing," he recalls. "At first it was only when eating dry food such as bread, potatoes and pastries but this progressed quite quickly to all food types and drinks except for milk, which soothed the irritation in my oesophagus.

"I was convinced I had an ulcer as the symptoms are very similar so I resisted going to the doctor.

"But by mid-December things had become much worse and I felt I had more than an ulcer but had never heard of oesophageal cancer.

"So I continued to take indigestion tablets and drink milk to ease the swallowing difficulties, until just before Christmas when I rang my friend and GP Paul Carson for advice - but unfortunately he had just left for holidays."

By this stage Mark, now 53, was having even more difficulty swallowing so when his GP returned at the beginning of January, he immediately made an appointment and was shocked when he was diagnosed with cancer.

"I met Dr Carson in the first week of January and told him I might have an advanced ulcer," says the Wicklow man.

"He asked if I had lost weight recently, which I had, and he immediately confirmed that it was not an ulcer. Three days later I had a gastroscopy and was told that I had a large tumour in my oesophagus which needed further investigation - I knew then that I was in trouble.

"A week later on my 49th birthday Dr Carson rang and confirmed the worst - I had cancer. I went to see him that morning and I believe what he said next saved my life, as he had survived cancer several years before.

"He said 'Even as a medical practitioner I had no idea about cancer so I put my life in the hands of those who did'. He advised me to do the same and I followed this to the letter and accepted my illness from that moment on."

Once the marketing consultant had accepted his diagnosis, he made a conscious decision to be positive as he believes state of mind has a lot to do with recovery.

"I discovered that stress and worry are major contributors to cancer and feed off the anxiety which come with diagnosis," he says. "I am by nature a positive person and this certainly helped me to beat the illness and if I could impart a little of this advice to others, I believe it will definitely make a difference to how they cope and how they fight this disease.

"Of course sometimes nothing can help if the cancer is very aggressive or too well established. Cancer can also be hereditary and in my case both my grandmother and uncle on my maternal side both died from gastro-related cancers.

"The facts surrounding cancer in this country are staggering, with one in three of us succumbing to the disease. And sadly, since July 2013, I have lost four good friends to different types of cancer, so I am without doubt one of the lucky ones, if one can be lucky when diagnosed with a disease like this in the first place."

Mark began his treatment in February 2012 with three months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery to remove the tumour from his oesophagus.

"I am eternally grateful to all the doctors, nurses and nutritionists who showed such dedication and utter professionalism to me during my treatment," he says.

"I walked out of hospital on July 16 two weeks after surgery and spent the next two months in recovery before resuming chemo for a further two months.

"This second round of chemo was horrible as my body was considerably weaker than before the operation; however, it was wholly necessary and allowed me the time to fully recover from the overall process.

"Last week I attended my bi-annual check-up and discovered that my progress and odds of being cancer-free have improved considerably - so my survival rate is now 90pc as opposed to 10pc in January 2012.

"If I could offer any advice to anyone newly diagnosed, I would say that the reduction of stress and worry is crucial to coping with a diagnosis and disease like this.

"The involvement and unbridled support of family and friends played a huge part in this and was a vital part of my recovery - and having such wonderful children, siblings, parents and my lovely partner really helped to allow me to concentrate on winning the battle."

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