IAIN Barbour was enjoying a barbecue in his garden during lockdown when he first noticed something amiss.

It was July 2020 and the part-time firefighter choked while trying to swallow a piece of burger.

A few days later he was experiencing chest pains and struggling to digest a sandwich.

"I probably wouldn't have gone to the doctor's then but my wife was on at me, saying 'there's something wrong'," said Mr Barbour, now 58.

The father-of-one, from Cupar in Fife, was initially prescribed tablets for acid reflux.

When symptoms continued, he was given antibiotics for a suspected stomach infection.

By October he had lost around four stone and was surviving on a liquid diet of soup and water.

He finally saw his GP in person and was referred for an endoscopy at the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.

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The procedure confirmed Mr Barbour's worst fears: his oesophagus was "75 per cent blocked" by a cancerous tumour.

"I think deep down I knew it was something serious," said Mr Barbour.

"The minute you can't swallow, I think you do begin to worry, but I was probably in denial that it wouldn't happen to me because I've never been off sick and I've never had any ill health.

"When [the nurse] told me that, I remember looking about me thinking: 'who's she talking to?'. I couldn't take it in.

"I always remember them saying it's common with heavy smokers – but I've never smoked in my life.

"Then they asked me about alcohol, but I'm almost teetotal – I hardly drink either.

"They asked what my occupation was, but I don't think they could tell how it had happened. They just said I'd been 'unlucky'.

"I asked them how long the tumour had been there and they said it could have been two months, or it could have been 20 years – there's no way of knowing – but something has just exploded in this tumour and it had grown to a size where suddenly I had difficulty swallowing.

"At no time did I ever think 'it's to do with the fire service' – you just can't think that way. It's impossible to say."

HeraldScotland: Iain Barbour returned to full operational duties in November 2022Iain Barbour returned to full operational duties in November 2022 (Image: Newsquest/Herald&Times)

As well as his job with the fire service, which he joined in 1983, Mr Barbour had also worked as an area manager for Fife council – retiring in 2017 – and more recently as a self-employed golf caddy.

After tests established that the cancer had not spread, Mr Barbour began eight weeks of chemotherapy in Edinburgh before undergoing a nine-hour operation in February 2021.

Surgeons had to cut him open from the back and break his rib cage in order to remove the diseased oesophagus. His stomach was then pulled up and used to create a new oesophageal tube.

"I went under at 8am on the Monday morning and woke up on the Friday," said Mr Barbour.

"They kept me on the ventilator for four days.

"I was very fortunate – I had fantastic care from the NHS. The downside was that I was in hospital for two weeks during which I also tested positive for Covid, so I had to be isolated, then I got home in a wheelchair because I just had no strength left to walk."

READ MORE: Why are Scotland cancer deaths in 2022 lower than they were before Covid? 

Mr Barbour endured a second eight-week course of chemotherapy, but found the mental health impact of his ordeal hardest to overcome.

By summer 2021, he was struggling even leave his bedroom and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I was finding when I got to the front door that I couldn't breathe with anxiety just due to the fear of going back into the outside world again.

"When I went out for a short walk with my wife I'd see someone coming in the distance that I know and I'd turn left or right to avoid them – I couldn't wait to get back in the house."

HeraldScotland: Mr Barbour had never smoked and rarely drinks alcohol, but research today shows that firefighters in Scotland are more than twice as likely as the general population to die from oesophageal cancerMr Barbour had never smoked and rarely drinks alcohol, but research today shows that firefighters in Scotland are more than twice as likely as the general population to die from oesophageal cancer (Image: Newsquest/Herald&Times)

Following counselling sessions via Zoom, Mr Barbour recovered and was able to focus on his physical rehabilitation with private physiotherapy and gym sessions with a personal trainer funded by the fire service, which he said was "a fantastic support".

Mr Barbour set his sights on resuming full operational duties as a firefighter – something he finally achieved in November 2022, after passing the required medicals, fitness tests, and re-training in the use of breathing apparatus.

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He continues to have six-monthly check-ups but is hopeful he will get the all-clear at five years.

"The consultant said the majority of problems would be in year one – maybe in year two. [Going back to the fire service] gave my wife concerns, but she knows how much a part of my life it is.

"I've got some great friends there. I would feel absolutely lost without it.

"My goal was always to complete 40 years service, which I will this October coming.

"I don't know what I'll do after that – I might just retire – but it gave me something to aim for."