Author: Rebecca Younger
When Thames Ditton photographer, Keith Hern, was diagnosed with throat cancer five years ago, he dealt with it the only way he knew how – by taking pictures.
Through an incredibly honest and stark photographic portrayal of his treatment, Keith captured everything from the first bout of chemotherapy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London to the making of his radiotherapy mask and the eight-inch scar left on his neck after an operation to remove dead cancer cells. The candid imagery appears in Keith’s book, Bangers & Mash, which he started writing shortly after he was first diagnosed in 2007.
“I’d started writing a couple of days after diagnosis as the only way I could maintain some semblance of mental control, it would later become therapeutic,” he recounted. “My treatment consisted of five days of 24×7 chemotherapy, 11 days off, five days of chemotherapy again, 11 days off, then radiotherapy for six weeks daily with two top-up chemo sessions in weeks one and five.
“Radiotherapy side effects kicked in at the end of week one – I could no longer eat, then lost my taste, then I couldn’t sleep (my mouth was so dry I was sipping water 24×7), I lost two-and-a-half stone in the six weeks.”
Keith worked with a Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) coach to stay positive and it was while talking to her about writing a book of his experiences that the idea for a photo diary came about.
“She laughed at the idea and said, why didn’t I do what I was good at and photograph the treatment. It really started there,” he said.
Bangers & Mash, so titled because that was the first proper meal Keith ate after coming through the disease (treatment meant eating solids was painful and food in general tasteless), was published in November 2009. The book not only recorded Keith’s experiences at the Royal Marsden but also his fundraising expeditions to raise cash for hospital including a trek in Iceland, which raised around £7,000.
“That was a real achievement for me. When I first saw the leaflet for the trek at the hospital in 2007, I was at my lowest ebb. I signed up not knowing if I would be alive a year later to actually take part,” the 54-year-old said.
Quite ironically, just two weeks after Keith saw his incredible story of survival in print, he was told the cancer had returned, this time in his chest.
“I was given a 10% to 40% chance of survival. The tumour was too inaccessible and close to key organs to operate so I had to have three sets of five-day chemotherapy sessions, followed by four weeks of daily radiotherapy,” he explained. “That’s a pretty sobering fact to be told, but having survived before I was determined to do so again.
“A lot of it is in the mind. I know three people who were given three months to live – for one of them that was 25 years ago and they are still here.”
In May 2010, Keith was once again pronounced clear of the cancer and it was around this time that publicity surrounding his book began to grow, partly due to Hollywood actor Michael Douglas’ high profile diagnosis later that year.
“I was then interviewed on radio, in the Daily Mail, and then on ITV’s This Morning, from which a number of people got in touch including one young lady recently diagnosed and in the same mental state as I was at the start,” he said. “She found Bangers & Mash really helpful and gave a great testimonial.”
Keith has started a follow-up book and regularly gives motivational talks to businesses, schools and groups across Surrey. He is also planning another fundraising expedition to Nepal in November to raise more money for the Marsden.
“I’d like to think my story not only helps those living with throat cancer but also their relatives and even those, who have had no experience of the disease,” Keith said. “Talking about it and being completely open about the whole experience, warts and all, raises awareness and that can only be a good thing.”