Hackney People: Errol McKellar
Car mechanic helps save lives by offering discounts to customers who get checked for prostate cancer
"I START every day by saying ‘good morning’ to the people who pass,” says Errol McKellar, as he describes his routine at the garage in Cremer Street, E2, which he has owned and run for 26 years.
Adding: “Because we have good days and we have bad ones. But on those bad days, well, at least you’re alive. Anything can happen, as long as you’re alive.”
Errol has good reason to understand this more than most. In 2010, his wife made an appointment for him to visit his GP about his snoring.
He says: “I was sitting in the reception when I saw a flyer about prostate cancer. The receptionist said a test would only take 10 minutes, and I could do it there and then, so I did. I had no idea those 10 minutes would change my life forever.”
A week later, he was called in for more blood tests, then a biopsy, then a scan. Errol continues: “Then the doctor sat me down and said ‘Mr McKellar, your prostate is covered in cancer’.”
With his wife, Sharon, beside him, Errol was told the prostate would have to be removed, or he might not survive the next six months. “There was an operation. Then radiation therapy, then five years of seeing a doctor every month,” he explains.
Errol was finally given the ‘all-clear’ last year but, he says: "It was in 2012 that I started to feel I needed to do something about prostate cancer awareness. I just couldn’t think of how".
A man came into the garage soon after and, while discussing a problem with his gearbox, Errol asked if he had had his prostate checked. “He was a bit taken aback!” laughs Errol. But the mechanic offered him a 20 per cent discount if he took a test and a week later, the man returned.
“He was waving his results,” says Errol. “They showed that he had early stage cancer. He said that if we hadn’t spoken, he never would have been checked. Like me, he hadn’t had any symptoms. He said he didn’t want the 20 per cent discount, but to donate it to charity instead.”
Thus, Errol’s awareness campaign was born. Every man who comes into the garage is offered a discount if they get checked for prostate cancer, a disease which affects one in eight men in the UK and kills 10,000 a year.
Treatment is most effective if diagnosis is early. But, says Errol: “Generally, men are too macho to talk about these things. I asked 100 women who came into the garage whether they had been to the doctor in the last year. Eighty-nine had. I asked the same number of men, and do you know how many had been? One. Just one. That’s shocking.”
Errol continues: “In this little garage in Hackney, in just the two-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this, 35 men have come back to me and said they were diagnosed with prostate cancer after I asked them to get checked. And there could be more; men who were too shocked, or embarrassed, to talk about it.”
Of those 35 men, 20 were Afro-Carribean. Errol wants to spread the word that black men, as well as those over 50 or with a family history, are at greater risk.
Errol continues quietly: “Two of the men diagnosed after coming into the garage are no longer with us. And they were men with their futures ahead of them. It’s such a tragedy.”
Errol has raised over £20,000 for Prostate Cancer UK since 2012. Chosen by the local community, he carried the Olympic torch through Hackney, cheered on by 20,000 people.
Earlier this year, he organised a charity football game at Leyton Orient football club, and persuaded Thierry Henry, Russell Brand, Harry Redknapp and Bradley Walsh among many other celebrities to join in promoting the cause.
“But I couldn’t have done any of it without the Hackney community. It’s the best. You couldn’t dream up a more incredible support network. I’m so, so lucky,” he says.
Movember aims to tackle some of the biggest health issues faced by men – including prostate cancer, testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity – by raising awareness and money.
By Harriet Worsley