Irish Daily Mail
‘We need to think about death... to be prepared for it’
Colm Keane reveals how his son’s death and his own throat cancer diagnosis have left him determined to live life to the fullest
COLM KEANE was surprised to hear his consultant’s voice on the phone. It was just after 3pm and he knew the doctor usually kept his patient phone calls to the evenings, just before leaving the hospital for the day. Clearly he had some very important news. Pushing the door to his home office closed, the author steeled himself to hear the results of his most recent tests. He had been warned, numerous times, that his throat and neck cancer had, at least, an 80 per cent chance of returning.
And if it did return, there was nothing that could be done. There was no further treatment that his body, already ravaged by the maximum amount of chemotherapy and radiation allowed, could stand. That would be that.
As he listened to the consultant, Colm’s wife, Úna O’Hagan, stood outside in the corridor, waiting. They had been expecting this call.
‘She had put two and two together,’ says Colm. ‘I’d pushed the door shut because I thought it was going to be really bad news. We all expected dreadful news.’
While well-prepared for the worst possible prognosis, Colm, a former RTÉ radio presenter and producer, found it almost impossible to comprehend what the consultant was now telling him.
‘He had been so taken aback with the results that he had to ring me straight away,’ says Colm. ‘They couldn’t find any cancer and he couldn’t explain it. It was quite extraordinary.
‘I stayed on the phone with him for a little while and then I got really upset. I rarely get upset, but it was almost miraculous. Here I was, back with a chance again.’
It is hardly surprising that Colm and his wife Úna, a well-known RTÉ newsreader, had fully expected to be told t hat t he Corkman’s days were numbered. The couple had already been dealt a horrific blow five years earlier when their only child, Seán, died at the age of 20 from osteosarcoma, a cancer of the bones that had spread into his lungs.
They were helpless for two years and eight months as the disease took a vicious and relentless hold of their bright and talented son, and were by his bedside when he died on Christmas Day 2007.
Exactly four years later, Colm was diagnosed with his cancer.
‘I got the results of my biopsy at the beginning of the January,’ he explains. ‘It’s called squamous cell sarcoma. It has nothing to do with Seán’s cancer, it’s just bad luck. In fact it’s really bad luck because one in three people in Ireland will get cancer but for our family it has been two out of three.’
It is less than 18 months since Colm was last interviewed by the Mail, on the release of his last best- selling book, We’ll Meet Again. And the difference in the 62-year- old’s physical appearance is remarkable. The sickly, jaundice pallor that he and Una once jokingly referred to as his ‘tan’ has been replaced by a genuinely, healthy looking summer glow, thanks to a slew of foreign holidays and regular outings to the countryside.
While still slender, he is no longer painfully thin and his posture is tall
‘People waste a lot of time. I want to do things’
and strong. He is wearing a dark coloured polo neck sweater that covers the damage done to the right side of his neck and shoulder by several huge operations. But he cheerfully pulls it down to show off the neat scar he has been left with, while gleefully banging on the area with his fist to show how it is now rock hard.
He looks good. But it is his demeanor that is most striking. There is a glow of positivity and serenity about him. He rattles through the interview, talking a mile to a minute, often interrupting his answers with questions of his own, always the journalist. He and Una are living for the now, he declares.
‘The biggest change for me is my sense of time,’ he explains. ‘I’ve got a real compulsion to do things. People waste a lot of time, everything is put on the long finger. It really hits me when I see someone coming to Dublin like, say, Art Garfunkel. I immediately see when he’s coming. Because if it’s next May I laugh and I think who could plan for next May? The vulnerability we all have and the openness to death. How can anyone presume they’re going to be here next May? Certainly not me.
‘I do things now. Since I saw you last we’ve been in Israel, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. I’ve always wanted to figure out this whole Biblical thing. Not that I’m religious, but I always wanted to do it. We swam in the Sea of Galilee, went to Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, everywhere.
‘We’ve been in Paris, we’re just back from Sorrento and Rome and we went to see Burt Bacharach in Manchester a few weeks ago. So we will do things and we will do them now.’
In-between his trips, Colm has been writing. Already the author of 24 books, his latest work, Heading Into The Light — The Ten Things That Happen When You Die, is being released on 23 September.
As with his previous bestsellers, which i nclude Going Home, The Distant Shore and We’ll Meet Again, he tells the stories of people who have died and come back to life and what they experienced while ‘dead.’
But this time he has pulled together all of the research, interviews and studies he has dealt with in the last number of years and listed out the ten stages he believes everyone goes through when they die, from departing the body to encounters with heaven and hell.
‘This book is the culmination of everything, of Seán, of me, all the work I’ve done for five years on this,’ he says. ‘I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have experiences around death. But there are 100 people I’ve spoken to for this book who have temporarily died and come back to life. Car crashes, near drownings, heart attacks and things like that.
‘Most of them got in touch with me, so I took all the stories put them all together and saw the common trend, I compared them to international studies, especially from America, Britain, India and the Netherlands. I’ve also gone back through all the sacred texts and scriptures. From Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, all of these ancient texts and brought it all together.
‘And I’ve been able to establish, with certainty, that there are ten things that will happen to us when we die. They give me great hope, the news is good, it’s really positive.’
Indeed, Colm is remarkably cheerful while discussing death and dying. Far from being a morbid fascination, he sees it as a necessary and healthy interest, one that everyone should have.
‘Not thinking about it is dreadful,’ he exclaims. ‘To not to be prepared for what’s ahead. Would you not prepare for a trip abroad? You need to think about it. Bar birth, it is the biggest event of life. It’s inevitable.’
In the seven years since his son died, Colm has explored, discussed and written extensively about death. Throwing himself into writing his books, three of which have gone to No. 1, has undoubtedly helped him through the dark days of his grief. ‘We still think of Seán every
day and every hour,’ says Colm. ‘He’s constantly in our minds.’ But his research has also led to believe, with utter certainty, that death is not something to fear. And that one day, perhaps not as soon as once thought, he will be reunited with Seán. There’s a woman in Limerick who was through one of these experiences, she was gone from her body,’ he explains. ‘Now she says she can’t wait to die. Not that she wants to die tomorrow, she has things to do, but she envies people when she hears they are going to die. She always tells them that she envies where they are about to go because it is a wonderful, beautiful place. She comes into my mind. People question it being a happy experience because the body might be writhing in agony on the ground. But, for instance, I interviewed two guys called Simon and Paddy, both were in car crashes. They explained to me how they weren’t there, they could see their body but they were out of it, looking back, feeling tranquil, peaceful and serene as they headed off on this journey elsewhere.
‘Even in your biggest pain or the biggest trauma that you could be in, you feel well on this wonderful journey. And I know my son went on that journey, I remember watching him and I know the journey that he went on was not bad.
‘And I know the journey that I will go on will not be bad and I think everyone should know that.
‘It’s been a huge comfort and a huge solace but I’m almost worried calling it that because it almost sounds as though I went out to find good news. It really has been what I found.
I would be very cynical and sceptical about things, I’ve been a journalist for a very long time. I came into this saying that whatever I find I’m going to publish. If I find nothing and it’s all bunkum, well so be it. In actual fact what I found was positive but if it had been negative I would have done it too.’
Whether you follow Colm’s theories on death or not, you can only be impressed by the strength of his beliefs, which have obviously helped bring him
‘I’ve learned to run a mile from all nastiness’
great peace and joy. He speaks with utter conviction and a lightly worn confidence that never feels like he is trying to persuade you into thinking as he does. For him, this is how it is.
Born in Youghal, Co. Cork, Colm studied at Trinity College Dublin and Georgetown University in the US before returning to Ireland in the late Seventies to work in RTÉ. Starting in television, he moved into radio as a presenter and then as a senior producer, supervising shows fronted by stars including Pat Kenny and Marian Finucane.
He started going out with Úna in the mid-Eighties after meeting her in the station’s canteen. While Colm left RTÉ some years back, Úna has continued to work at t he State broadcaster full-time.
While the death of a child can tear some couples apart, Colm and Úna have only become closer in the last number of years. The strength of their relationship compounded even further by Colm’s illness.
‘Úna is brilliant,’ he says simply. ‘I wouldn’t have survived my cancer without her, I really mean that. It really brought us together, not that we were apart, but it really brought us together. It fused us almost.
‘We understand each other perfectly. We both faced Seán’s death head on. But Úna has also faced my death head on and for a while, we were very close to it. The biggest relief to Úna was to get out of the hospital routine. Don’t forget, she had it with Seán before me. But now we both get on with it.’
Colm returns to the consultant every four months for check-ups.
Like all cancers, there is no guarantee it won’t return. But that is not something that Colm dwells on, he is too busy enjoying his life with Úna.
‘She is one for everything,’ he smiles. ‘Whether it’s popping down the country to go for walks, or abroad to see a new city. There are so many places I want to go, books I want to read, concerts I want to hear, swims, walks... The key to it all, is to do it now.
‘The other lesson I’ve learned is to avoid all situations of aggression, nastiness, hostility and the mess-ups, I run a mile from it all now, I just shut it out. I really did re-evaluate. It’s only good, happy, positive people I want to be around now.
‘Instead of being around negativity I go listen to a record, or watch a sunset, or watch paint dry. Whatever...’ ÷ HEADING FOR THE LIGHT: The Ten Things That Happen When We Die by Colm Keane is published by Capel Island, available for €14.99, from easons.com