Grabbing oesophageal cancer by the throat
‘Sometimes nothing can help but always believe in the amazing medical teams’
Mark Kenna: “I know I’m one of the lucky ones, but only now do I feel my cancer journey has come to an end.”
Directly or indirectly, cancer affects everyone. By 2020, one in two of us will have developed some form of the disease and, while certain strains such as breast and prostate cancers have very high survival rates, the outlook for other types is not so positive.
Oesophageal cancer has a low survival rate. While the prognosis is improving, it remains one of the most difficult to detect with fewer than one in five people diagnosed with the condition still alive five years after diagnosis.
Mark Kenna developed symptoms in 2011 and, despite waiting for several months to seek advice, was diagnosed and treated in time.
“In October 2011 I had difficulty swallowing dry food such as bread, potatoes and pastries and by December everything I ate became difficult to swallow,” he says. “I took indigestion tablets and drank milk to ease the swallowing and just before Christmas rang my GP to make an appointment, but he had gone on holiday.
“By the time I saw him in January 2012, I had lost a lot of weight and was fatigued all the time. He referred me for a scope and three days later I was told that I had a large tumour half way down my oesophagus that needed further investigation. A week or so later, on my 49th birthday, the doctor rang and confirmed the worst – I had cancer.”
Kenna (54), who has six grown-up children, says his GP told him to accept the diagnosis and do everything the oncology team advised.
“I believe what my GP said saved my life,” he says. “He had survived cancer several years before and told me that, even as a medical practitioner, he had no idea about cancer, so put his 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. This advice, in my opinion, is vital to cancer survival. You need to say ‘I have cancer – what can I do to beat it?’”
The Dublin man underwent surgery to remove the tumour. This was followed by medication. He believes that ever-improved treatments, combined with being upbeat and focusing on the future, is a great healing technique.
“I am by nature a very positive person and this certainly helped me to beat cancer. Of course, sometimes nothing can help as cancer can be too aggressive or too well established, but always believe in the amazing medical teams, always believe you can win and always believe medical science will help you win – it did for me.”
Some 400 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in Ireland each year. Dr Robert O’Connor, head of research for the Irish Cancer Society, says that, while risks and symptoms vary, there are ways in which people can minimise the risk of developing a particularly deadly form of the disease.
“Much oesophageal cancer seems to originate from a few factors coming together,” he says. “Smoking tobacco and excess alcohol use would be risk factors – as would obesity. Reflux, or a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, is also a specific risk factor.
“Symptoms can vary by person and will often go on for some time, although not always. Usually, but not always, there will be a history of heartburn and related symptoms (pain, belching, hiccupping) and, really, heartburn which keeps going for anything more than a few weeks needs to be investigated by a GP, who may wish to refer on for further tests.”
Treatment of oesophageal cancer depends on the individual and, while surgery to remove cancerous tissue is very common, this is also very complex and technical and can cause problems, such as difficulty breathing or eating.
Radiation and chemotherapy is also used to treat this cancer. Kenna had two courses of chemo before and after surgery.
“The [first] chemo was designed to reduce the malignancy and size of the tumour to prepare me for my operation in July 2012,” he says. “I was discharged two weeks later and spent the next two months in recovery before resuming chemo for a further two months.
“The second round 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. [Following that] the advice and coaching from my nutritionists played a very important role in fighting the cancer and post-op rebuilding of the immune system and recovering my appetite.
“As a foodie and amateur cook, I devised many specialised menus for myself under their guidance and would suggest this as a must-do for others with this type of cancer.”
Kenna is doing well and is beginning to look towards the future. “Five years from my diagnosis, it’s 99 per cent unlikely the cancer will come back,” he says. “This is an absolutely huge milestone for me, but also for my children, siblings, parents and my wonderful partner, Cliona, who suffered with me every day.
“This involvement and unbridled support of family and friends was vital and cannot be underestimated. I know I’m one of the lucky ones, but only now do I feel my cancer journey has come to an end and I can begin to rebuild and resume life as I knew it.”
Panel: Symptons of oesophageal cancer
Difficulty, pain and/or discomfort swallowing
History of heartburn (acid reflux) that didn’t go away or needed constant over-the-counter medication
Pain in your breastbone, back or throat
Vomiting with or without blood present
Weight loss, possibly including fatigue and night sweats