Well, it’s official as of this morning: I have prostate cancer.
It’s a diagnosis I was acutely aware would be possible, though I did hope I’d be given the all clear this morning, two weeks after the biopsy and less than three weeks before my 44th birthday.
My father, Peter, died of lung cancer on 19th October 1997 and my mother, Rita, of ovarian cancer last year, on 7th March. With a cousin in remission from breast cancer and an uncle (her father) currently undergoing chemotherapy, there was no doubt of a family history of cancer.
Still, with my age and the fact that I have no symptoms of prostate cancer (apart from an elevated PSA that only came to light by accident), I dared to hope that I would continue on to work from my appointment in the Rapid Access Prostate Clinic in the Mater Hospital this morning, with good news under my belt and a new spring in my step.
It was not to be.
Having watched both parents living with and ultimately dying from cancer, I can’t say it’s come as a complete surprise, shocking though the diagnosis still is. When you see both your parents die from cancer, the first thing you lose is the complacent believe that cancer is the kind of thing that only happens to ‘other’ families. It doesn’t. Cancer happens to my family.
It all started on the June bank holiday weekend. I’d been experiencing a constant but mild headache for about six weeks. It was more a minor irritation than anything else. At the time I put it down to stress or eye-strain. I’m an IT project manager, so stress is an occupational hazard, and I spend most of my days in front of a laptop. So I wasn’t unduly concerned about it, thinking it would just pass like these things usually do.
But at 4am on Sunday 5th June I awoke with a headache that was anything but mild. My wife, Colette, phoned the doctor on call and I went to Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan. There, it transpired that my blood pressure was extremely high and I was informed I was at risk of stroke. Hypertension is a very treatable condition, though, and with the right medication I could live a perfectly normal and long life.
Happy days! I’d got a warning shot across the bows and would, from now on, take more active care of my health. No more would I sweat the small stuff and I’d stop to smell the roses from now on. You know, the usual stuff that lasts about as long as a New Years resolution.
Anyway, there was a routine blood test to be done so that went off to the lab and I’d follow up with my GP in Ashbourne. There were a few things out of the ordinary like high cholesterol and very high iron levels. Nothing that couldn’t be managed. But there was also the matter of an elevated PSA level that stood out. PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland. There are a number of reasons for it to be elevated, cancer being one of them. However, PSA alone is not a reliable indicator of anything and further tests are called for. So my GP referred me to the Rapid Access Prostate Clinic in The Mater Hospital, Dublin.
After two weeks waiting for the dreaded and euphemistically named “digital” examination, I was in The Mater. I had expected that I’d have the aforementioned examination first and if the doctor didn’t like what he felt (less than I did, that is!), he’d send me for a biopsy. Imagine my surprise when he told me that my PSA level was so high, I’d be getting the biopsy anyway. I didn’t like the sound of that and had still to suffer the indignity and discomfort of the “digital” exam. But it was a “quick in/out” as they say and the doctor was a perfect gentleman about it!
The biopsy was another matter. It was much more invasive, uncomfortable and prolonged. The staff were brilliant though and made me feel as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. They tried to reassure me that PSA is not a reliable indicator of cancer and chances are I’d be fine. It would probably be nothing more than an inflamed prostate but I’d have to wait for the results.
Two weeks later (today) and I’m on my way into the Mater to meet Prof. John FitzPatrick for the verdict. I have been apprehensive but hopeful of the outcome and had planned to go into work in St. Stephen’s Green after getting the good news. Colette came with me but we took separate cars, so confident were we that the rest of the day would be business as usual.
Sitting in traffic on the Finglas Road, an ad comes on the radio for the Irish Cancer Society. “Have you recently been diagnosed with cancer?” it asked, offering a phone number to ring for help and support as a new cancer patient. I’m not a superstitious person but I didn’t like the sound of that on the way to get my biopsy results. Don’t be silly I told myself. That ad has probably been playing for weeks but I didn’t notice it until now.
So I’m in the waiting room at the hospital, waiting for Colette to arrive after finding parking. I’m reading the news on thejournal.ie on my smartphone when an article jumps out at me. It’s a woman’s description of being told she had an 85% chance of breast cancer. That’s two omens now. I don’t like the way this morning is shaping up.
I don’t get to finish the article because Colette arrives. While we’re talking, an older man emerges from the rear of the clinic, smiling. He’s greeting his friend who is waiting for him and talking cheerfully on the phone. It’s good news. He’s in the clear and joking that he could have had a heart attack from the anxiety of waiting for the result. Well, fair play to you, I congratulate him in my mind. The first of many to leave this place with good news this morning, I hope.
Two minutes later, my name is called from the back of the room. Colette and I brace ourselves, get up and go in to see Prof. FitzPatrick. It’s the same room I met him in two weeks ago but this time there is also another doctor and a nurse present. I don’t like the look of this. I introduce Colette and Prof. FitzPatrick says he’s glad we’re both there.
Without making eye contact, Colette and I think the same thing: “oh fuck!”. This is the bit I’ve been really dreading. But protocol demands a certain amount of preamble. Prof. FitzPatrick starts by summarising where we were at two weeks ago. I had a very high PSA level and a strong family history, yada, yada, yada. “So we were expecting to find something” he said. “And you did”, I finished his sentence for him, anxious to get to the point. “Yes, we did” he confirmed.
So, there it was. I am now officially a cancer patient. Not the news I was hoping for. Not at all! Suddenly I feel closer to my late parents, in a way I did not want and I know that they would not want for me. So this is what it’s like to be told you have cancer. This must be what it was like for that lady whose article I had only half read in the waiting room. Heavy!
These thoughts went through my mind in an instant and now Colette and I were holding hands as Prof. FitzPatrick continues. He and his team have a plan for me. I will need a bone scan and an MRI to ascertain whether the cancer has spread.
Actually the words he used were “your cancer” – the three most chilling syllables I have ever heard in my life. “My cancer”. Boy, that sure makes it real, doesn’t it!
Anyway, after the scans are done, he’s going to remove my prostate gland and keep the option of radiotherapy in reserve. He called radio a trump card and as such you don’t play it first. Hopefully, ‘my’ cancer is confined to the prostate and surgery will have the desired effect. If not, then radiotherapy will kick in.
The dates for the bone scan, MRI and surgery have yet to be confirmed so it’s a waiting game for now. I have to wait a few weeks for my prostate to fully recover from the biopsy (which took 12 samples – I’m surprised there’s any of it left!). It will still be bruised and swollen from the biopsy so scans would be inconclusive and surgery counter-productive at this stage.
There was a lot of other stuff about the effects of having my prostate removed. Lovely stuff about catheters and the possibility of urinary incontinence and/or erectile dysfunction. All of this I actually wasn’t too bothered about. I only want to live. If the price to be paid for that is a wonky willie I’ll cheerfully pay it and leave a tip!
Talking about ‘your’ cancer gives you an instant and radical change of perspective and priorities. It’s almost liberating in a way. I hope I still feel that way about it six months from now or whenever I’m going to have to deal with it.
So, with all that news and a subsequent chat with the prostate nurse, Colette and I left the hospital armed with new pamphlets and phone numbers. We emerged on to the North Circular Road and it was pissing rain. Great!