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Coping with cancer

Tags: cancer

Keith is now facing cancer for the third time - but with a fighting spirit, he strives to keep positive and help others through a book on his experience and motivational speaking events, which he now regularly takes part in.

Having faced many sides of the condition himself, Keith was happy to answer any questions about living with cancer, whether it be on telling loved ones or simply tips on how to handle treatment.

Ruth O asked:Hi Keith. What would you suggest is the best way to tell children about cancer?

Keith Hern:Tricky one - I have to say when I had to tell my daughter it was the toughest thing I ever had to do, she was 13. I think it depends on their age, how much they would likely understand. I had no hesitation in telling Jess straight, but if they are much younger I think you'd have to use a different route. I met a couple who had this problem as their kids were 4 and 2, and they had to sort of make a game of it.

Gill asked:How can you keep the family together when someone is diagnosed with cancer? I feel like it’s so sad that no one can think of anything else?

Keith Hern:Gill - to some extent it will test the strength of the family bond, but in all the situations I've come across that's always been where the strength has come from, the family support. What do you mean when no one can think of anything else?

Gill:Just that everyone is dwelling on the sad side of things and it's hard to get people thinking positively. Any tips on helping things seem more positive?

Keith Hern:One of the areas that are often overlooked is how tough it is on the partner - everyone asks about the health of the patient, but in my case it was my wife who was shouldering all the duties (earning etc) while I was off. This does build up pressure on her, and she will need an outlet every now and again.

Staying positive, it comes from looking forward. Planning what you are going to do after the treatment is over, and setting some treats and targets in the future (I always booked a holiday).

Gill:Booking a holiday is a good idea. I will suggest this, thanks!

Ruth O asked:What things do you find difficult now that weren't a problem before your diagnosis?

Keith Hern:Very little Ruth - the only two I would say I'm still affected by are both very minor: very low tolerance of spicy food (throat cancer effect) and also much greater susceptibility to feeling the cold... other than that nothing really.

John asked:Hi Keith. Did cancer run in your family? Do you think genetics is a big part of getting it?

Keith Hern:Hi John - no genetics on that side at all, my father had a cancerous tumour on a kidney which was removed a couple of years ago and he's 85 now...that appeared after I'd had cancer twice. No history whatsoever.

I guess if you've got a history of cancer through the generations then there will be an increased chance; I've certainly heard that said. But it's very difficult to work out exactly what triggers it as we have all got millions of cancer cells, but they don't always turn into the disease.

John:I see. My family only seem to have cancer on the male side so I wondered if I would be at a greater risk. Though obviously there would be other factors for their diagnosis, lifestyle, chance, etc.

Keith Hern:John - what sort of cancer? If it's a male type (testicular) I suspect the medics would say genetics played a role, it’s tricky to generalise. That's one of the risks of reading too much on the internet - so much information can get you unnecessarily worried/scared.

John:One was stomach and the other I think was chest, not sure, he died before I was born so quite young. Thanks Keith, I am less worried now.

Rita asked:Hi Keith, I agree with you about how tough it can be on the partner. When my husband was being treated everyone focussed on how he was doing which was great, but I was going through it too, though of course not in the same way. You can feel rather overwhelmed by it all but you just get on with life and try to keep things as normal as possible. Did you find that keeping things as normal as possible helped you and your family?

Keith Hern:Rita - that is so true. Being as normal as possible is definitely the best way, it keeps your mind engaged elsewhere, keeps you active – I still believe in that, even going through it all now myself.

Umbongo:Hi Keith, there were folk in my family who found it very difficult to cope when my mother got cancer. They shut down, became mute. I couldn’t see how to get them out of it but it wasn’t my cancer so I was seen as selfish and detached. Not quite sure what I could have done better.

Keith Hern:Hi Umbongo - that's not unusual - everyone will find their own way of dealing with it. A very old friend of mine doesn't 'do' sick so I never heard from him until I'd recovered. It's tough at times, often it's only going to change slowly, sometimes not at all.

Umbongo:I guess so - think some people are just wired differently.

Rita:Umbongo, did you talk to anyone about how you felt? That's what I missed. I could not express my feelings as I thought that would be selfish.

Keith Hern:Umbongo - it's not your fault if they react differently, that is important to remember, as beating yourself up over someone else isn't going to help you or them. Concentrate on you.

Umbongo:I had my brother, but he was sort of receding a bit too. Got out the other side okay in the end, but I always wondered. Thanks.

Ruth O asked:So what's the difference between private and NHS in terms of care?

Keith Hern:Private v NHS - interesting question having been in both the wards and private rooms. To me the big benefit of private is quick access to diagnosis - in July this year I had been to two NHS hospitals been given painkillers at one and antibiotics at the other, when I knew there was a problem I rang AXA. 48 hours later I was in hospital and diagnosed that day - it's so much more efficient in diagnosis.

John asked:So do you feel that you are safer with private? Do you get more attention?

Keith Hern:John - in terms of general care once you are in hospital everyone is looked after pretty well. Private will give you privacy in your own room, better food. The ward is noisier but can be more sociable - just depends on the other patients.

JRog:Hi Keith. I'm not sure how to stay positive without trivialising my friend's cancer. I don't want her to think I don't appreciate how serious it is, but I'm trying to lighten the mood. Any advice you can offer would be much appreciated.

Keith Hern:Hi JRog - good point, and certainly humour I found really helpful, but the timing is also important, as if you try when they're in a 'down' phase it won't work. If they are in a better frame of mind it will only help. That I think is a case of being more aware of where they are and reacting accordingly. Humour certainly helps though, and if you can get them to laugh it has a very uplifting effect.

Fiona asked:Hi Keith, you have mentioned in your blog series that writing a blog can help. Is this something you recommend to others?

Keith Hern:Hi Fiona - thanks for the reminder, yes I found writing was a major help in terms of keeping the mind positive and occupied. It was when I was in hospital in 2010 I first began writing a blog, which I continue to do today. It is certainly a good way to record what's going on.

John asked:So is blogging a kind of therapy for you?

Keith Hern:John - absolutely, it also will act as a reminder when I get round to writing my next book. It goes back to 2007 and my throat cancer, when I both photographed and wrote about my treatment - very therapeutic.

Ruth O asked:My step dad has MS and tries a lot of alternative medicines and diets along with his regular treatments at the hospital. Have you tried a similar approach with your cancer? Does anything help?

Keith Hern:Ruth - yes I do a lot of alternative things - when I was diagnosed second time round I looked into it in some detail. I have made massive dietary changes, as there is so much evidence that this helps. I also do yoga regularly, and currently I practise Reiki, aromatherapy and the occasional acupuncture session. I also do my own magnetic therapy.

Fiona asked:How does Reiki help? It's interesting to know of good relaxation techniques.

Keith Hern:Reiki is one of those energy-type healing approaches, but I must admit I find it really good for relaxing completely, and have dozed off in a couple of sessions. I'm still working on allocating enough time to do more relaxation as that's really important. If you can meditate effectively, it's a great way to relax.

The acupuncture has been really interesting as when I first went he said there was nothing he can do that will help with a cure, but he could help monitor my system to see how it was reacting to the changes. So if you like, it's a control panel for how I'm getting on. Last time (about 9 days ago) I noticed he put the needles in the same place for the first time, and I asked why - he said no more remedial help was required as I had got my internal system back to where it should be. As I say, fascinating how it works.

Ruth O asked:Is that to help with the stress or the tiredness from treatment?

Keith Hern:Ruth - really just to help relax, certainly want to keep stress low. No I didn't use any alternatives for the tiredness, just sleep.

Caitlin D asked:How can you stay calm before getting treatment?

Keith Hern:Caitlin - when I was first diagnosed in 2007 and I had to start with an operation I was very nervous. But I was already working with an NLP coach on the mental side and she suggested some self-hypnosis CDs by Suzi Smith. I found the one 'preparing for a medical intervention' very helpful, and the title made me think as well.

Ruth O asked:Is there a diet you would recommend?

Keith Hern:Ruth - top of the list for avoiding are processed meats (ham, bacon, sausage, pies), dairy products, anything very sweet (cancer cells love sugar), cut down on red meat, anything saying low calorie/diet or with lots of e-numbers. Definitely have more fresh vegetables, ideally some raw, and organic where possible and oily fish is excellent as its rich in Omega 3. Keep alcohol, coffee and tea low (not easy as far as I was concerned) and replace with water (bottled or filtered) and green teas.

Lucy:My friend is going through chemo and has terrible side effects of a sore mouth.

Keith Hern:Lucy - has she been told how long that will last? Because it will pass, which I know isn't easy but it's very useful to remember.

Lucy:I just know nothing the doctor gives her helps and wondered about any alternative therapies?

Keith Hern:Lucy - I don't know of any that would help with that. The only situation I came across was skin burns from radiotherapy, the hospital were promoting one brand (Acqueos cream) but I didn’t like the look of the neck of the patient next to me as she looked terribly burnt. The next guy had nearly finished treatment and had no burns at all so I asked what he used, and was told Radiance gel which I then bought and had no burning at all from radiotherapy. But no, I don't know an equivalent for chemo and the mouth.

Dennis C asked:Hi Keith - to what extent would you say positive encouragement outside of a medical environment helps? I have a relation who is currently undergoing palliative care, and although it's not something we discuss, I do feel that this is important as it helps change the focus. Would love to hear your thoughts?

Keith Hern:Dennis - anything positive will help, and anything that will help keep the mind active and interested in something else will help. I know it's easy to say, but if the patient can work on doing this it will really help. It's all too easy to slip into the 'woe is me’ type mentality when not feeling well, but that won't help. There is only so much you can do for someone else’s frame of mind.

John asked:What treatment was the hardest?

Keith Hern:John - the effects of radiotherapy were the hardest for me, by a mile. It wasn't the treatment itself, but the side-effects. With throat cancer I had over six weeks when I couldn't eat, taste or sleep properly because of the radiotherapy, which was the worst part. But I knew what would pass, so there was an element of 'grin and bear it' as it needs to be gone through to get out the other side and recover.

John:I see, so it is worth it?

Keith Hern:Absolutely worth it, and when you get through it and look back you'll be mightily impressed with your own strength. No question about being worth it at all. As someone told me - the treatment is six months in an 80 year life – which gives some perspective.

There are really low times I know and they're not easy, but they do provide a comparison point when things are better. There is a real degree of adapting the 'glass half full' mentality - positive thinking makes a huge difference, even the surgeon I met on Tuesday to discuss my situation said increasingly this is being seen as a bigger and bigger influence on possible outcome.

I actually gave a talk on Monday about a positive mind-set - if you are on Facebook find ‘Journey through Cancer’ and the video will be on the wall.

Fiona:Hi Keith, I notice you've done some public speaking on your journey lately. Can you tell us a little bit about the type of things you talk about and the response from the audience? Also, do you get nervous while discussing your experiences in front of a crowd?

Keith Hern:Hi Fiona – I’ve been public speaking twice this week - Monday's talk was incredible, it was the largest audience I had spoke to, some 700, and the theme was the more positive approach you take, the better the results can be achieved. Currently I'm working on helping my own system keep up to avoid the possible surgical removal of my right lung and it's working judging by the tests 48 hours ago.

Yes I do get a little nervous, but that's a good thing as it shows it matters. The audience reaction on Monday was unbelievable - a standing ovation from 700! It just shows how cancer touches pretty much everyone, and there is very little coverage to the positive approach.

Yesterday at the launch of Mouth Cancer Action Month they always have a patient speaker (me this year), simply because it enables all those involved in the medical/dentistry fields to better understand what a patient goes through, so it's a definite win/win situation.

I also do lighter talks, such as ‘Have Camera Will Travel’ all about travel photography and how to take better pictures. I gave both talks to the same audience a few weeks ago which was a first.

Ruth O:Have you always been into public speaking or is it something you have gotten into after your diagnosis? Is it hard sharing personal experiences?

Keith Hern:Ruth - no it used to scare me rigid, I almost got into by accident. It started when I had an amazing testimonial from a patient who'd found my book helpful to her when she had throat cancer, and I just thought if my experience could help anyone else that would be fabulous. Only a few weeks ago I met up with another who had read it and we'd swapped emails so I could give her some tips on what I found worked. She then said something that absolutely confirmed in my mind I could help: 'Keith, without you and your book I would never have survived my cancer. Reading your book was the single most important thing I have ever done in my life'. I couldn't ignore that. I couldn't believe it! But it sure made its mark with me - incredibly humbling, but at the same time incredible that someone else attributes so much.

Notsupermum:Just wondering given your history with cancer - how do you stay so positive?

Keith Hern:Determination to get through it. There’s too much I want to do with my life, and a 19 year old daughter I want to see into ripe old middle age.... maybe it's born out of always playing sport, or twenty years in sales before being a photographer but I have a ‘never give up’ attitude. Even the surgeon I saw on Tuesday knows - the first time I met him my consultant had 'warned him' about me, and this time he said he had seen an inordinate different types of people, but had never dealt with anyone like me… I took it as the ultimate compliment!

Ruth O:So would you say that a positive mental attitude is a treatment in itself?

Keith Hern:Ruth - it makes a huge difference so yes.  Read anything to do with the placebo effect and you'll see.

Charlie:Do you feel that cancer has had a positive effect on your life? Has it given you a new perspective? Or do you wish it never happened at all?

Keith Hern:It has turned my life on its head! Very positive, it has resulted in me doing things I would never have remotely considered, like becoming an author and a speaker. So yes, it has given me a whole new perspective as currently I'm starting to think about how I could do more of the speaking/ inspirational work and would like to break into the international arena, which would of course tie in nicely with my passion for travel photography. Yes without a doubt it's had a positive effect.

Do I wish it never happened at all? I guess not, as I wouldn't be where I am now.....but in all honestly I would rather like to get through the current round and not get it again, as I think three times is enough to get the new 'perspective'!

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