Captain Richard Kentish, a Boeing 737 pilot, spent 15 years working in aviation. But, after accidentally discovering a serious health issue, the pilot’s personal and professional life was turned upside down.
At first glance, Captain Richard’s story may seem similar to that of thousands of other aviators. However, there is usually much more to the story than meets the eye.
As a child in the 1980s, Richard dreamed that one day he would be at the helm of the planes he saw in the sky, and began to plan ways that he could turn his dream into a reality.
Richard’s parents were concerned about his desire to spend his professional life in the aviation industry, which, at the time, was unstable due to unfettered free competition in the market. Instead, they encouraged him to go to university and postpone his dream of becoming a pilot until the aviation industry recovered.
Richard followed his parents’ advice, and, as a result, achieved a degree in mechanical engineering. But this was not his true vocation. Still filled with the desire to take a seat in the flight deck, Richard decided that his diploma would be a back-up plan, just in case his dream of becoming a pilot did not come to fruition, and enrolled at a flight school in Britain.
By the time Richard had completed his required training, aviation employment opportunities had improved. However, it was still a challenge for even the most experienced flight crew to find a job with an airline. So, for a young aviator with a newly minted commercial license, it was far more difficult.
But, in 2007, a newly licensed Richard managed to attract the attention of an Irish low-cost carrier and was invited to join the company as a First Officer on a Boeing 737 passenger jet. In 2012, Richard, who cites stubbornness and curiosity as helping him to climb the career ladder, took the left seat of the 737 cockpit.
While working 40,000 feet above the ground was ideal for Richard, he admits that some of the more negative parts of a pilot’s profession, such as early morning flights, have had an impact on his personal life. As the father of two small children, it had not always been easy to combine his dream role with his family life.
He says: “I have a young family, so the main challenge of being a pilot is being away from those whom I love. Luckily for me, my wife is fantastic and I’m very lucky in that respect.”
However, almost a decade and half later, Richard not only found himself in the middle of a global and professional crisis, but also experienced some unexpected personal issues.
Misfortunes never come alone
It is often said that misfortunes never come alone. This phrase is certainly something that Richard can relate to during a turbulent 2020.
Firstly, Richard, like many others across the industry, was forced to deal with the changing environment in both his professional and personal life caused by a global health crisis. However, rather than dwell on the negatives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as lockdowns, grounded flights and closed borders, Richard dedicated more time to his family. However, a crisis separate to the COVID-19 pandemic was lurking in the wings.
Richard explains: “It was January 2020, everything was great. I remember I was sitting on the sofa at home on my days off. Then my four-year-old child all of a sudden jumped onto me and caught me in the private area, which was very painful. I didn’t think any of it went away, I thought it was fine. But then I noticed that there wasn’t something quite right down there, one part of my body was slightly larger than the other. But, as a typical man, I was thinking that everything will get better soon. However, I was wrong.”
He adds: “My beautiful wife encouraged me to visit doctors, where I was examined and reassured that there were no lumps. However, they sent me for a scan to check if I had cancer.”
During the scan, the doctor found something suspicious and Richard was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As a result, his medical certificate would be suspended and his career would need to be put on hold.
Initially, Richard was not able to process the seriousness of his situation. “It was odd,” he explains. “People around you, people that love you, are definitely processing this information and getting upset. But you are just processing this information.
“Later, you go into survival mode. I started thinking that I do not care what it takes but I will make sure that I will see my both daughters get married and have children. These thoughts motivated me.”
Captain Richard Kentish
COVID-19 restrictions hinder the fight against cancer
Richard feared that cancer had clipped his wings forever, but, as Testicular cancer is considered one of the most curable forms of the disease, doctors continued to provide him with new hope.
In February 2020, a month after Richard had first noticed the abnormalities, the captain underwent his first surgery. However, in March 2020, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK was moved to an emergency footing in order to prepare for the huge wave of COVID-19 patients needing hospital care. As a result, many people with cancer had vital appointments, surgeries and treatments postponed and even cancelled.
Richard says: “We caught it nice and early, which is the key to cancer. I had an operation within 10 days of meeting the doctor. The National Health Service in the UK was absolutely fantastic, they really looked after me. I was supposed to have one cycle of chemotherapy, which had to be three weeks, just as a ‘belt and braces’ after the operation. The chemotherapy should [have] started in March 2020, but then, in March, the UK was put under lockdown.”
Luckily, the results of Richard‘s blood test did not show any signs of cancer. So, to avoid negative effects on the pilot‘s lungs, doctors decided against a course of chemotherapy. Instead, they scheduled regular scans every three months.
Richard began the process of regaining his medical certificate, so he could return to the skies. However, three months later, Richard received further unpleasant news about his health.
He reveals: “In July 2020, my blood started to show that I had cancer again in my body. I had a scan that showed that cancer spread to my abdominal lymph nodes. I was just in the process of getting my medical back when doctors said that I would have to do three months of very intensive chemotherapy. So, I did it.”
Richard’s wife, family, and colleagues crossed their fingers crossed, but after exhausting chemotherapy sessions, the pilot struggled to recover.
Relief after an exhausting battle
While Richard underwent months of intensive chemotherapy, his cancer was not eradicated completely.
He says: “I remember doctors telling me that they had good and bad news. The good one was that I no longer had cancer in my body, and I thought that was fantastic, but the bad news was that the tumor was still in place and it meant that we needed to remove it. My situation was very rare. It turned out that the tumor continued to grow during the chemotherapy. It does happen, but it is very rare.”
Richard had to undergo a retroperitoneal lymphadenectomy, also known as RPL, where doctors removed the cancerous abdominal lymph nodes.
He says: “I had an RPL in November 2020 and that was a relatively large operation as they [doctors] open you up completely [as] your abdominal lymph nodes are on your spine, or just by your spine, so, they had to take out all my bowel, remove the tumor and put my bowl back in. Doctors did a fantastic job and I was very lucky to have [had] the best surgeon.”
When the tumor was fully removed, Richard was scanned again, and the results indicated that he was finally cancer-free.
He smiles: “We did a biopsy on the tumor and that is non-cancerous. So, the chemotherapy had worked.”
Having fully recovered from cancer, Richard immediately turned his thoughts to returning to the skies. But the first step was to recoup the medical certificate.
“Initially, they put an ML on my medical, which means I could only fly multi-crew, so, two pilots flying together just in case of my incapacitation. Then in February 2021, after I had shown my scan results, restrictions were removed and that was great.”
The first takeoff after an 18-month hiatus
Richard’s cancer battle lasted a “tedious and intense” 18-months and, after such an uncertain period in his life, his first flight back was incredibly poignant.
He says: “When I had my operations, I was thinking that my career [had] ended. But then, after 600 days, in October 2021, I had my first flight and it was an emotional one. I genuinely did not think I was going to fly again.
“I passed my line check, so I could fly without another training Captain next to me. I was finally fully released back into what it was like before the COVID-19. That was a big moment for me to return to doing what I love to do.”
Currently, the pilot’s health is monitored every three months and he has to undergo scans and blood tests. Richard reveals that the kindness and support he received from family, friends, and even strangers, throughout his treatment, was overwhelming.
He adds: “I met so many amazing people on different cancer paths to mine. I want to say a massive thank you to the people in my life, my beautiful wife, family, friends, colleagues at work, the NHS, and the random acts of kindness we received as a family.”