Bernie Greener ~ Seeing off Eye Cancer

Bernie Greener ~ Seeing off Eye Cancer

Originally published in February 2004 icon

Ocular Melanoma - The Facts

Bernie Greener


"If I Can Do All This, Anyone Can!"


Bernie Greener is a remarkable man, although modesty would prevent him from ever describing himself as such. At 53. the father of three, from Sunderland, has just been promoted to foreman at one of the North East’s busiest shipyards.


Climbing 60ft ladders to balance on scaffolding is no mean feat for anyone - but for a man who lost his left eye to cancer just over three years ago, and had to learn to walk all over again, it is a tremendous achievement.

Bernie’s courage and determination has also led to him launching and running a charitable support trust, Eye Believe, to help others with his condition. As he prepares for a busy 2004. and looks forward to a special personal milestone in his marriage to Linda - their silver wedding anniversary in March - Bernie found time to tell icon his inspiring story.

"I saw Dr Woods at the Sunderland Eye Infirmary on October 9 2000. When I told him it was my 50th birthday he said, ’Unfortunately, don’t think you’re going to get a birthday present in here. He was right I’d already had lots of tests, but after doing more he told me that I had two cancers in my left eye. One a corneal malignant melanoma, which was ’detaching my retina and would make me blind’, and another ’floating’ malignant melanoma which attacks organs.

Open quotesI knew something was drastically wrong when my optician kept me in for an hour doing various
testsClose quotes


’How many options do you think you have?’ he asked me. I said I liked to think I had two, including keeping my eye, but be told me that that wasn’t one of them. I could either have radiotherapy first before removing my eye, or just go straight for the operation. I felt numb. I’d only gone along to my optician the week before to have a check-up, after spending three months working in Holland. I had been staying in a room on my own there and woke up every morning in total darkness to get ready for work. It was so dark that I noticed a kaleidoscope effect in my left eye when I first opened it. When I sat up in bed the vision in that eye seemed to split in half but when I put the light on everything was fine. There was a small amount of pain there, but I’ve been a plater for more than 30 years and there’s always pain somewhere doing that work, so I just put it down to the pressure of working long hours away from home. When I went home for my weekend leave, at the end of my first month, I didn’t notice the kaleidoscope effect at all. Now I think that was because our bedroom is too light, because as soon as I got back to Holland it started again. At the time I just put it down to strain - until it got worse in September.


When the job finished in October we all got paid off and, as I was on the dole, I had time to see my optician. I’ve been going to him for years, so knew something was drastically wrong when he kept me there for an hour doing various tests. When he’d finally finished he said, ’Mr Greener, you need to go to the Sunderland Eye Infirmary straight away. I’ll order you a taxi, and pay for it, because I don’t want you going on the bus.’ He said he wasn’t allowed to tell me what was wrong, but as soon as he said that I knew I was going to lose my eyesight. I called my wife, Linda, at work, and she came and drove me to the infirmary, where I went in and out of rooms having tests. I saw three consultants, but was told they would get another, Dr Woods, back from his holiday to see me urgently the following week, as he was the person who had to tell me what I had. Before I left I asked one of the consultants to tell me what they’d found. He said, ’What do you think?’ I said, ’I’ve got cancer haven’t I?’ He asked me why I’d said that, and when I said it was a feeling I had, he wasn’t allowed to confirm it. He just said, ’When you see Dr Woods next week your life will change drastically.’

So before Dr Woods gave me those two options, I’d already made up my mind that I would have the cancers, and my eye, taken away. I wasn’t going to have any radiotherapy. Radiation is used all the time at work and I knew it most often damages the good things in your body as well as the bad. I’d already told my family and friends what I would do, but when it came to saying it out loud, which I was asked to do (I think for legal reasons), that’s when it really hit me that it was actually going to happen. I started to go cold from my toes right up to my mouth...

Bernie and Linda

My wife started crying and Carol Weatherstone, the nurse who is designated to me for life, jumped up, when she saw I couldn’t speak, came over to me and nipped my ear, and I heard myself say, ’I want my cancer and my left eye taken away’. It might not sound much, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t cry, because I was numb, but the tears were there. I found out much later that Linda and the family had planned a surprise 50th birthday party for me that night but it was all quietly cancelled.

Instead we went home and I tried to tell the kids (Daniel, Stephanie and Luke, now 21, 16 and 15) what was going to happen in a way that wouldn’t make them frightened of going to the opticians or having check-ups in the future.

I didn’t have my operation straight away because a blood test at the Sunderland General, showed an abnormality on my liver I was told that if the cancer had spread to my liver there was no point doing the eye operation as I only had a maximum of 10 months to live. I was given another scan and had to wait 10 days for the full results. The worst was already in my head, so I didn’t worry. I didn’t get much sleep, though, during that time because I spent it planning the next six months in my head. I wish I’d written it all down! I wanted to make things as comfortable as I could for my family, and was planning things like bow to get extra money for them for after I’d gone. I even thought about showing them how to turn the water off in the house, and how to do all the jobs I normally did.

It was quite a nice feeling that I had the time to put things in order for them. At the end of the 10 days, though, still had more to plan, but when I went back to the hospital to get my results the lady consultant said there was nothing on my liver and I had the all-clear to have my eye operation. I was on cloud nine!

Open quotesMiss Chapman removed my eye and put a tiny piece of man-made coral in the back of the socketClose quotes


I had the two-hour eye operation during the first week of November 2000. Miss Chapman removed my eye and put a tiny piece of man-made coral in the back of the socket. She attached the six muscles of the eye to the coral, pulled the back of the eye over to cover it and then put in a semi-circular plastic former to keep the shape of my eye. I was told that all the muscles grow on the coral. This keeps them alive so that when the artificial eye is inserted the muscles move as before, and your plastic eye moves like a real one. It’s amazing. Someone sitting next to me wouldn’t know it wasn’t real.


I stayed in hospital for two days with a very tight patch on my eye, to keep the swelling down. Then I was allowed home, but had to go back in for another week’s rest to heal the wound because it started bleeding after I began to do too much at home.

The only real pain I ever felt was when I opened my eye after they took the patch off. It bad been shut for so !ong that the pain was horrendous. They gave me painkillers, which I took for a day and then just got on with things. They are amazing people at the Eye Infirmary They treat you so well it’s riot like being in a hospital.

Once the patch was off I had to wait about two weeks, for the swelling and discolouration to go away, before a temporary eye was fitted. Although the former didn’t look too bad, in the meantime, the children were a bit upset to see me because I wasn’t a bonny sight! But kept telling them it wouldn’t be for long and after about three months my false eye was ready. The specialist had made a cast, marking where my pupii was going to be so that it matched my other eye in position as well as greeny/brown colour. I didn’t go anywhere during my first two weeks back home. It was like living in a dream. I forgot about a lot of things and time wasn’t registering. I was trying to get used to walking again, with one eye, and kept knocking myself because I was going too fast trying to be what I was before. Because I’ve always been safe at work, and done fire fighting safety courses when I was working offshore, what I should and shouldn’t be doing was always in the back of my mind.

I still did daft things, though, like leaving the grill open and the left-band gas hobs on, and Linda had to come along behind me turning things off. Losing sight in that eye, after 50 years, took time to adjust to and Linda watched me during that period. My son Daniel also helped, because as soon as I was well enough to go out he came to a football match with me. We went early so that we could walk against the crowds. I knew I had to get used to walking around with people, and the longer I put it off the harder it would be, so Daniel walked on my blind side. The next time I did it on my own, and I kept on until I got better and better. It was amazing what walking against people did for me.

Open quotesLosing sight in that eye, after 50 years, took time to adjust toClose quotes


That first six months at home was very hard on Linda because the shock and trauma affected me badly. When I was getting down, and thinking I wasn’t getting any better at managing with one eye, she would say that I was doing alright. Then I worried about not getting a job and us having to sell the house we’d worked so hard for - that would have been like chopping off both legs as well as taking my eye. I don’t think I’d be working again now if it hadn’t been for the support Linda gave me. I soon realised that I had to be positive, even though it was hard.


After six months, one of the managers at Swan Hunter’s Shipyard called to see how l was and to say be had a job for me. I didn’t want to go back on the tools side, with all the grinding and welding, because, although the cause of my cancer is unknown, I’m sure it was through getting weld flashes and dust in my eyes over 30-odd years. The manager offered me a job where I would stay on the ground calculating the weight going on and off the vessel. Later a job came up building two ships for the MOD. I was put in charge of progress reports, and had to go on board all units. I said I’d have a go, and walked straight over to a 60ft ladder and onto the scaffolding. It was like I had never been away.

What I found difficult in the early stages, was that because eye cancer is so rare there was no one to see or talk to about it. That was quite frightening for me, because nurses, doctors and surgeons only do their jobs and you’re only a number in hospital. Almost as soon as I’d had the operation I decided I wanted to make sure there was somewhere people could go so that they didn’t go through what I had. I mentioned it to Mike Walls, who is now co-ordinator for cancer groups in this area, when I went along to one of his meetings. This group was for all kinds of the most common cancers, and Mike suggested I form my own group for people with eye cancer. And that’s what I did, with help from Linda, the Eye Infirmary and some advice from nationa! support group One Vision (which is for anyone who has lost sight in one eye). The Eye Believe Support Trust had its first meeting in July 2002, and there were only four or five of us there. Two months later 20 turned up, and we have 50 members now and have been a registered charity for six months. My ambition is to expand the charity and organise fundraising so that we can build an extension to the Sunderland Eye Infirmary to enable more eye patients to be treated there.

Open quotesIt feels amazing to be alive and doing so
muchClose quotes


I also want to do more to help One Vision. At the moment I talk to about six people, who’ve had similar experiences to me, on the phone every fortnight. I explain what they can expect from the operation and how to cope afterwards. I tell them that I’m 53 and back in the shipyards climbing around scaffolding, in and out of tanks, up a height - things which most people with two eyes don’t even do - and I say that if I can do that they can do the things they want to.


To think that I was planning my last six months, and l’ve been clear now for more than three years. Although they never say that the floating melanoma is really gone. I go for check-ups every six months and feel brilliant right now - as fit as a fiddle. It feels amazing to be alive and doing so much. I had the surprise birthday party I missed on my 50th, for my 53rd last year instead and 200 people came along, which was great. This year Linda and I are talking about going away. We have never been on holiday just the two of us, in 21 years, so I want to thank her for all the support she’s given me and take her away for a week to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

If someone had told me three years ago that not only would I be working in the environment I’ve gone back to, but that I’d be promoted to foreman in charge of 16 platers; and that I would have started a charity to support people who had lost an eye, I would never have believed it. I wouldn’t be without any of it now because I love helping people. It feels great."

Bernie Greener talked to Melanie Hart

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