The words my urologist used to tell me I had cancer: “We have a bit of a dilemma. We’ve found something. But it’s early. So our dilemma is whether we deal with it immediately or see whether it develops – because it may not. And you’re still a very young man – in prostate cancer terms”.
My first bit of good luck was my choice of urologist. (To be fair, it was my wife’s choice: in most relationships in this country, it’s women who are the ‘gatekeepers’ when it comes to matters of health. A friend of mine used to joke that there were only 3 products in pharmacies that men bought – razor blades, condoms and Solpadeine…everything else was for women!) But the wife did her research, talked to lots of people and gave me my orders.
Why was it lucky? At that time, almost 5 years ago now, my options were ‘active surveillance’, brachytherapy (radiotherapy) or surgery. Surgery was usually invasive, of the full-frontal variety and, while effective in dealing with the cancer, it was brutally so, often resulting in urinary incontinence and permanent, irreversible erectile dysfunction. I was just 49 when I got my diagnosis so this didn’t look very appealing. But my urologist told me he wouldn’t dream of recommending that; instead, he proposed robotic surgery which is minimally invasive, meaning that there is less likelihood of damage to the many nerves and veins that are essential to the correct functioning of men’s bits.
My second piece of luck: he recommended a surgeon in Germany with vast experience of just this type of surgery which had not yet become available in Ireland. It is now.
But first we tried the active surveillance. I quite liked the idea, imagining a kind of stakeout against cancer, recording its every move. The reality was a little more prosaic, as I suspect real stakeouts are: a biopsy every 6 months which involves taking a dozen or so tissue samples from the prostate gland, which is not something to be engaged in for recreational purposes. In my case, it wasn’t a long stakeout: the second biopsy showed a far greater incidence of diseased tissue, whether through luckier targeting or because the cancer was advancing – who knows? – but it was time to move in. I started making preparations for a trip to Germany.
Two months before my surgery, my Da died. He was a couple of weeks short of his 94th birthday. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer several years earlier which was successfully managed with hormone therapy. My mother, from whom I had decided to withhold the news of my own cancer until after the surgery, asked me to collect his death certificate from the HSE in Sligo. That was tougher than I’d expected. The cause of death column had about 12 causes listed in it, including prostate cancer. I just felt that was unfair: he’d have put up a good fight against a smaller number but what chance did he have with 12 against 1? And, given the unknowns I was facing, reading that death cert gave me the worst case of heebie-jeebies I’d had to date.
Some months later, one of my brothers was in hospital, again unbeknownst to my mother. She asked another brother (there are 6 of us, by the way) to text him a photo of my Da’s gravestone, which had just been completed. I obviously inherited my legendary diplomatic skills from my mother!
My third piece of luck: not only did the surgery go well in Germany but, when the pathology report came back a week after the operation, it showed that the cancer was on the move and was just about to leave the prostate and head off to bigger adventures in my body. Even a month or so later and I might have had to deal with a problem of far greater magnitude. So, I was extremely lucky that I dealt with the cancer early – because very many men don’t.
I think my Da might have been looking out for me in all of this. A couple of days after my surgery, I was shuffling around the ward, looking especially debonair with my surgical stockings and catheter, when I looked down the atrium from my floor to the floor below. There was a man sitting there, who was of similar build and age to my Da, and I watched him for a second. I couldn’t see his face. But he did this thing, where he put his hand to his forehead and drew it down his face, a gesture so typical of my Da when he was tired. I instantly welled up but I also really felt that somehow everything was going to be ok.
(Being a macho bloke and all that, I’d like to blame that little display of emotion just there on the after-effects of the anaesthetic!)
Almost five years on, of course, I’d prefer not to have got cancer. And I’m not taking things for granted: I hope my good luck continues. But the experience has taught me so much and I now get to talk to lots of men who are at the same stage I was over 5 years ago. I can give them a lay-person’s perspective, which I hope is of benefit to them. It’s enormously therapeutic for me. Also, the fact that I have had the privilege of being involved in a campaign which is already making an enormous difference to people affected by cancer.
Cancer tried to get me but I got lucky instead. These are some of the ways I try to get it back.