Before you go on, I want to say that this will be a little bit squeamish, maybe a bit uncomfortable to read and will certainly talk about the male…form. But it’s an important way to educate everyone about Cancer and its side-effects. This is very personal topic for me and I hope that you’ll power through – and please leave some feedback or share it with your friends – some of whom, like many men, may have their heads buried in the sand.
This week is Male Cancer Awareness Week. It’s the 10th one to be held in the UK and is run by Orchid Cancer Appeal, who specialise in the three Male Cancers – Penile, Prostate and Testicular.
Every year, 50,000 men in the UK are diagnosed with Male Cancer.
600 are diagnosed with Penile cancer. 47,000 are diagnosed with Prostate Cancer and 2,200 are diagnosed with Testicular.
In 2007, at the age of 18, I was one of those 2,200 men.
I was fresh out of Sixth Form and on a family holiday with my parents in Italy. About to start my gap year (yes, I was one of THOSE people), I was so excited to finally be out of school and into adulthood. My Mum’s birthday is at the end of August and so we were away. It was great – warm weather, a hotel situated on Lake Garda and the best kind of food (I’m a sucker for Italian cuisine).
I was playing tennis with my Dad and I just suddenly pulled up in a flash of pain between my legs. It was that kind of pain which makes you feel physically sick. The kind of pain that you only get when you’ve been kicked in the balls…
Luckily, I hadn’t been. But I knew that something was wrong. We still had a few days of our holiday left and there was very little that could be done. So, I sheepishly walked around the resort, doing my best impression of John Wayne, and drank an amazing cocktail, called the Grasshopper. It’s Vodka and Crème de Menthe – and it’s as strong as anything. It numbed the pain!
It’s difficult to describe, but I was always told at school and by my Mum to ‘check’ myself. So, whilst I was in the shower in my hotel room, I felt the ball (the one on the left) that was painful. I couldn’t find a lump, in fact, there was no lump. The entire testicle felt like a brick. Hard and very sore. I knew that something wasn’t right.
Once we were back at home in London, I scheduled an appointment to see my local doctor. It was the 4th of September. That date will always stick with me. I went along to my appointment with my head down, very embarrassed. Men are terrible at talking about their ‘bits’. We’re awful at ensuring we check for lumps and bumps. We’re terrible at realising we aren’t invincible!
The appointment with my doctor gave me some relief. After he had a poke around my groin, he told me he was 90% certain that it wasn’t serious and that the testicle was twisted or I had knocked it. He was very confident, however, that it wasn’t cancer. Luckily, he referred me for an ultrasound that afternoon at the local hospital, just to be sure.
My Dad was away on business and so my Mum was driving me to and from the doctor’s office and the hospital. I couldn’t drive myself as I was in too much pain because, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty difficult to have your legs together when one of your balls is about 50% bigger than usual!
In the middle of the afternoon, I went for my ultrasound – something women go through when they’re pregnant, but not something I ever thought I would have to go through. That gel that they put on you is freezing! The appointment came and went and I was out of the hospital within an hour.
The hospital was about a 3-minute drive from my house and one of my best friends, who is as close to a sister that I’ll ever have, was staying with us at the time because she was auditioning in London. As my mum and I pulled into the drive, she was on the phone, standing in the front door waiting for us.
On the phone was the doctor who I’d seen that morning. I needed to go straight back to his office to see him. Right then. That minute.
This doctor wasn’t our regular family GP, because she had been fully booked that day and so I was given an emergency appointment and assigned another GP. I’ll never forget what happened.
He sat my mum and I down and just kept repeating the line “It’s very serious. This is very serious”, but he couldn’t seem to get it out and tell us what was wrong.
So I had to ask him. “Do I have cancer?”
It turns out I didn’t just have a tumour on my left testicle. The left testicle had effectively become the tumour. Later on down the line, I was told that the cancer had actually been dormant for 10 years. I had had cancer since the age of 8, but it hadn’t flared up.
I don’t remember anything after that.
For 10 years I have tried to rack my brains and remember what happened in the immediate aftermath of being told that I had cancer at the age of 18. But I simply cannot remember. The next thing I do remember was, what must have been about 30 minutes later, my Mum and I sitting on the wall outside of the doctor’s surgery, with my Mum on the phone to the PA of my would-be surgeon. I honestly think that the reason I was given an appointment to see the surgeon so quickly was because my Mum just went into autopilot and pleaded with the woman on the end of the line. I just remember her repeating “my son has just been diagnosed with cancer. Please, please can you find a slot for him for an appointment?”
It’s almost impossible to try and digest what has happened to you when you’ve been told that you are seriously unwell. Do you tell your friends? Do you just sit and cry? Do you contemplate the worst that could happen?
That evening, I told two of my closest friends. It was awful. The problem with telling those closest to you about this kind of thing is that you end up consoling them. You end up being the person who tells everyone that it is going to be okay. It’s just human nature. On reflection, it’s an odd thing to feel that you have to do.
One week later, on 11th September, I went in for my surgery to have the cancerous testicle removed. I think it took about 45 minutes, but it was scary. Losing something that is so aligned with your masculinity is petrifying. You don’t know whether you’ll wake up from the operation and look down and just think “Oh my God”.
And that was that. I went for a scan a few days later and they were slightly concerned that they could see ‘shadows’ on the lining of my stomach. The thought of the cancer spreading was one of the worst parts of the ordeal. Thinking that you may have to have the bottom of your stomach scraped to get rid of any possible lymph nodes is not a nice thought. Luckily for me, that wasn’t the case and I didn’t have to go through that procedure.
The next was thing to do was to meet with my oncologist.
Before that, I had to have various scans, blood tests and a lung function test. They had to make sure that my body was up to the rigours of chemotherapy.
For me, the ‘C’ word was always scary (not that one!), but the second scariest ‘C’ word was chemotherapy. You hear these awful stories. Throwing up all of the time, losing all your hair, becoming infertile. For some people who go through cancer, they just pick themselves up and develop this ‘do or die’ spirit. I’m not quite sure if I had that, but I hope that I did.
My oncologist is in Harley Street in Central London. I’d describe it as ‘Doctors Boulevard’. One street with hundreds of medical practitioners. Teeth whitening, plastic surgery, chemotherapy, other treatments. You can literally get anything done in Harley Street.
My oncologist said that I had a good prognosis. The tumour had pretty much been taken away with the surgery and my chemotherapy would be a short burst that would reduce the risk of the cancer coming back from 20% down to 5%. It would be 9 weeks long, carved up into 3 cycles of 3 weeks. Because I was young, he said that I could take a much harsher dose, which would mean that my treatment would be shorter, but it maybe slightly more difficult as I went through it.
A couple of weeks later, in the middle of October, I was admitted into the chemotherapy ward at my hospital. Each cycle would be broken into a week of intense chemotherapy in hospital, followed by a day-long treatment the following two Mondays. Repeat twice more and it would be over.
The first week of chemo was probably the worst. I was petrified of needles and the first time they wired me up to the machine, the poor nurse went in one side of my vein and out the other, which hurt SO much. They eventually found a vein that they thought would be strong enough and they switched the machine on.
On day two, my right arm had swollen up to about double its size. Apparently, my veins couldn’t take the hit. It was excruciating. Over the course of the week, they used about 4 different veins for the chemotherapy, including one in my hand – that was the worst.
Towards the end of my first cycle, my oncologist told me that I couldn’t go on this way and that I needed to have a ‘port’ put into my chest. This would mean that I could just be plugged into the machine and my veins wouldn’t be subjected to the huge amounts of liquid that was being pushed into my body. I went in and had the port implanted. It’s the size of a 50p piece with a small rubber tube attached and is threaded up through a vein. The vein the surgeon chose was higher up on my chest meaning that it looks like I now have a permanent love bite on my neck! The comments that I have had since…
One thing that has always stuck with me is the fact that my oncologist told me that 18 days after I started my chemo treatment my hair would start to fall out. I couldn’t believe that he was so accurate and to be honest, I didn’t really believe him.
But on day 18, I was in the shower and washing my hair and clumps were coming out. I looked down at the drain and it was clogged up with hair. Somehow, I found the funny side of it, remarking that I was finally starting to look like my Dad! But inside, I was heartbroken. A couple of days later, I went to my Mum’s hairdressers and had all of my hair shaved off. Looking at yourself in the mirror, while someone is taking a razor to your hair, is soul destroying. It was such a personal moment for me and I think that it affected me much more than I thought it would.
I was on BEP chemotherapy, and that also included steroids to ensure that I was strong enough and I had the ability to continue with the treatment. What I didn’t realise is that I would balloon up and become very puffy and large. The minute I finished my chemo though, I lost all of the weight.
The rest of the chemotherapy seemed to go off relatively well, until I reached my final inpatient week, where I must have been under the weather anyway and my eyes rolled to the back of my head, which freaked my poor parents out.
The day after my 19th birthday, on 17th December 2007, I had come out of the other end. I had finished my chemo. The palpable sense of relief is something that you can’t explain or put into words. I genuinely believed that it was over. That I had finished and I could just get on with my life because I was cancer-free and that would be that.
What you aren’t told is the exhaustion that you have to go through post-chemo. Yes, you’re tired, but it’s the little bits that all add up. I had to have my port taken out, which meant another day of surgery. Both my original surgery scar and my port scar ended up with ingrown hairs, which led to infections. More pills and another surgery. It feels like a never-ending ordeal. Every day you wake up and you hope that you’ll be that little bit stronger than the day before, but then you have a knockback. I developed impetigo on my face. I was nauseas, although I don’t think that I ever threw up.
But after those three months, I was cancer-free. I had beaten it and I didn’t need to have any more treatment.
The lingering effects of having Testicular Cancer have probably remained with me over the last 10 years. The physical effects have gone, although you can still see the scars on my body. The biggest thing is the mental side-effects though.
Other cancer survivors who I have spoken to have told me that they felt invincible after they beat the disease. I was the same. I thought that I could take on the world. But that comes with its issues too, surrounding over indulgence and being blasé about most things that could put you in a lot of danger.
I’ve always said that beating cancer, for some people, is 50% medical and 50% mental. I believe that I went through this in a relatively positive frame of mind, knowing that I would beat it and that I would survive. But for an 18-year-old, it was a truly awful thing. Looking back now, I’m so thankful for my Mum and Dad, who were two rocks who I needed at that time. We supported each other all the way through, and we have done ever since. But I also had friends who were fabulous. They kept my spirits high and ensured that there was always someone for me to talk to when I was at my lowest.
There are thousands of men out there who have gone through this and there are thousands of women who have been affected by other forms of cancer. One thing I learnt is that it is so important to talk about your health. I’ve also found myself having a better drive to succeed than I did before and it certainly forced me to grow up at a time when I was about to embark on a year of working before I went to University.
The funny thing is that if this hadn’t have happened to me, I would have gone to Keele University to study Music and American Studies. Instead, I changed my mind and went to Plymouth and studied Politics and International Relations, which has brought me to my current job.
If I hadn’t have gone to Plymouth, I wouldn’t have spent 3 amazing summers working in upstate New York at a Summer Camp, meeting the most amazing people and making friends for life. I wouldn’t have done any of that unless I had been diagnosed, because I would have been on a very different path.
Life throws up so many challenges when you look back, you realise that, in the end, they were a good thing and life is better because they happened.
As part of my 10 year anniversary, this Wednesday, I’m running a 5k for Orchid Cancer Appeal as part of Male Cancer Awareness Week. (If you want to donate, then go ahead! My JustGiving page is here).
You can find the amazing work that Orchid Cancer Appeal does here.
So yeah. That’s my story. Check your balls!