Stormont hopeful: I beat cancer only to lose my dad to killer disease

Kyle Savage with wife Mary and daughters Joyann, Felicity and Isabella
Kyle Savage with wife Mary and daughters Joyann, Felicity and Isabella

An Ulster Unionist Stormont hopeful has opened his heart over the thick black cloud of cancer that has hovered over his family for two years.

Kyle Savage, a dairy-cum-beef farmer from Donacloney in rural Co Down, fought and overcame the killer disease – it ravaged both his kidneys.

Kyles father George died just a month after a cancer diagnosis in 2014

Kyles father George died just a month after a cancer diagnosis in 2014

But on the harrowing journey back to health, he lost his father (former MLA George Savage) to pancreatic cancer.

“That was a shattering blow,” said Kyle, who is a UUP candidate in Upper Bann for the May Assembly elections.

“Dad, my mum Joy, my wife Mary and all the extended family gave me backing, far beyond the call of family duty during my illness – they supported me night and day.

“I have survived and am back to normal life – yet, dad was diagnosed on September 1, 2014, and passed away exactly a month later. It was shattering.”

By that time, Kyle was well on the mend and was later co-opted to George’s seat on Craigavon Borough Council.

”I decided it was too soon after his death to fight the new council elections,” said Kyle.

“Every member of the council was so sympathetic. It showed just how much they respected my dad – he and mum were both former mayors of Craigavon, and he served two terms in the Assembly.”

But there is a silver lining in the midst of all the trauma.

Kyle recently got the positive news that the cancer in his left kidney is abating, after he had half his right kidney removed to combat the cancer developing there.

The left kidney was showing worrying signs of the dreaded cells. But medication has reduced the condition, and six-monthly reviews will hopefully see the march to full health completed.

Kyle Savage is 45 and father of three daughters – Joyann, 11, Felicity, seven, and Isabella, five. He runs a herd of 150 cattle in the family farm, again following in father’s footsteps.

They’re a devoted Methodist family, and he is – again in his rural tradition – a member of the Loyal Orders.

“The support – practical and by prayer – was palpable in the darkest days,” he said. “And, believe me, there were dark days. Our minister, Rev Tom Deacon of Donacloney Methodist, was tremendous. And I must praise the medical profession – doctors and nurses – without whom I simply wouldn’t be here.

“The psychological force of the three girls was tremendous. There was terrible pain along the way. I kept telling myself they weren’t growing up without a father – I loved and appreciated both my parents so much.”

The former student of Lurgan Technical College is a farmer to the roots and has a Diploma in Engineering.

The first signs that all was not well health-wise came at the start of 2014, when an endoscopy and colonoscopy (“cameras probing both ends – rather unpleasant”) in South Tyrone Hospital, Dungannon, revealed a stomach infection and hernia.

But severe shortness of breath and regular sickness suggested something more sinister. And a follow-up scan at Craigavon Area Hospital uncovered a mass on the right kidney and lesions on the left, “and I was the first one to use the frightening word ‘cancer’.”

“It was Balmoral Show Week and further tests at the City Hospital diagnosed chronic bronchitis (aka farmer’s lung) to compound things.”

The operation to remove half of his right kidney was performed at Craigavon – a five-hour surgery – and he woke up in the recovery ward (two lines of beds with patients from various operations) and wife Mary and dad George were there to welcome him back into the land of the living.

It was a close thing as the cells were beginning to attack vital arteries.

“It was all so surreal,” said Kyle. But he did what he still admits was a strange thing – he touched the operation scar, to check whether it was short or long – “and I was relieved to confirm it was about 12 inches long…”

He explained: “I had an uncle who died of cancer after the surgeons opened his affected area with a short scar. He was inoperable and the wound was simply stitched up. Another uncle was operated on for cancer – a long scar this time – and thankfully he is still with us.”

Shortly after the surgery, the pain kicked in. He couldn’t eat, but was well enough to go home after a week in hospital. And then, a second emergency began.

“I started passing a serious amounts of blood. Mary called her nurse friend Adrianne while I nearly cried with the pain.”

The upshot was readmittance in to Craigavon followed by a hectic rush down the M1 to the City Hospital. He was bleeding internally, and in almost unbearable pain.

Kyle recalled: “I broke down and cried at that stage and I’m not afraid to admit it. It was all too much.”

His mum Joy was in the ambulance with him, George and Mary were in the Jeep behind, “and bumps on the M1 was agony – not to mention the speed ramps within the grounds of the hospital”.

He was suffering from post-operation bleeding in two areas and had to undergo angio-embolisation – entry via the groin – to stem the flow.

Morphine wasn’t dealing with the pain – “Life was passing in slow motion and I heard a surgeon say – he’s closing down.”

But images of his wife, daughters and extended family remained with him – allied to his deep Christian Faith – and he simply refused to “close down, even though I had the sensation of blood draining out of me”.

“I kept thinking I wanted to see the girls growing up. I believe implicitly in the power of prayer. I was in the hands of God and the brilliant medical teams,” said Kyle. “The operation was a total success.”