From prevention to cure, what men need to know about cancer
To mark Men's Health Week, which runs until this Sunday, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland wants to congratulate local men for taking action and getting healthier. Marie Foy talks to three men from Northern Ireland who say early diagnosis, fitness and therapeutic services have given them a new lease of life.
Cancer has a major impact on the health of men in Northern Ireland, with around 6,600 diagnosed with the disease each year - but more are surviving and thriving.
"Our message is positive - approximately 50% of all cancers can be prevented with a healthier lifestyle and men's cancer survival is improving," says Gerry McElwee, Cancer Focus NI's head of cancer prevention.
"It's our mission to encourage men to take action and improve their health. It's never too late to start incorporating simple, but effective, cancer prevention measures into your daily life. After all, you have everything to gain."
There are some simple guidelines that everyone can follow - keep to a healthy weight, eat healthily, get more exercise, take care in the sun, if you drink alcohol, limit the amount, and don't smoke. Finally, men over 60 should avail of the NHS bowel screening programme.
Gerry adds: "Some men can be reluctant to take time out of work, get an appointment that suits them, they often don't like going into a largely female environment and can delay seeking professional help.
"Seeing a doctor in good time can have a hugely positive impact. If you are diagnosed with cancer at an earlier stage, there are so many more options for treatments leading to better outcomes.
"More and more men are becoming aware of preventable health problems and the importance of seeking early medical advice and treatment."
Cancer Focus NI has a range of services geared towards making it easier for men to get health checks and discuss their concerns. These include the Keeping Well van, which brings checks and advice to sports clubs, workplaces, colleges and leisure centres - anywhere there are men.
The charity brings stop-smoking clinics, information talks and Male Quick Fit checks to community and health centres and other venues. There are also free counselling and support services for men and their families, a confidential nurses helpline (0800 783 3339), and therapeutic activities such as singing, art and creative writing.
‘My pal’s advice to go immediately to the doctor helped to save my life’
South Belfast man David Millar (64) works in publishing and has three daughters and eight grandchildren. A member of the Cancer Focus NI/Crescent Arts Centre Sing for Life community choir, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009. David wholeheartedly encourages men to see their doctor as soon as possible if they’re worried about their health. He says:
I mentioned to a friend that I’d been running to the toilet a lot and that there was a stinging sensation, but nothing that I was too concerned about.
He gave me some advice which normally would have gone in one ear and out the other but the next morning our conversation prompted me to ring my GP who called me in.
It all happened very quickly. The following week I had a second appointment with my GP who said my PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) count was very high. A further examination revealed that my prostate gland was enlarged.
I had a biopsy at Belfast City Hospital and went back a week later with my daughter Elaine for the results. We were met by a consultant and a urology nurse — that immediately alarmed me, it doesn’t take two people to tell you good news.
It was a bolt from the blue to hear I had cancer. I was advised the best option was to have an operation to remove the tumour rather than chemo and radiotherapy. I was told the next two years would be tough, and they were.
The good news was that the cancer had been caught in time, but the bad news was having to deal with the side-effects of a radical prostatectomy.
The tumour was removed but I suffered damage to my nerves. Then followed two years of more surgical procedures and numerous trips to hospital for repair work. One of the side-effects of the nerve damage was loss of bladder control.
It was a long haul and very tough. I had to learn exercises to help with the bladder issue, I had an artificial pump implanted at the base of my stomach and had to learn to go to the toilet again.
Throughout everything the doctors and nurses were brilliant and I can’t thank them enough.
I’ve been given the all clear but I’ve told all my friends to be alert to the signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and to get checked out if they have any concerns. My consultant told me that next time I saw my friend I should give him a big hug — my story could have turned out very differently if I hadn’t gone to the doctor when I did. Early diagnosis saves lives — it saved mine.
During my recovery I joined the Sing for Life choir for people affected by cancer. I can’t sing a note but there are no auditions. They are also crying out for more men.
The fellowship and camaraderie is terrific. You can relate to other people who are in the same position. When you meet someone who’s had a particularly tough time, it puts your own experience in perspective.
Or you may meet someone you can give a little advice and support to — either way there’s a fantastic feel-good factor about being a member.
You build up relationships with the others and I’ve made good friends. You get a great deal of pleasure from entertaining other people at concerts. The choir has been a huge support for me and one of the highlights of my week.”
‘I was overweight, had psoriasis and asthma, now I do six triathlons a year’
Cookstown man Martin Smith (30), who is married to Cathy, had a life-changing experience after joining a Cancer Focus NI Focus Fit challenge. As a result he lost three and a half stones and expects to complete six or seven triathlons this year. He says:
I had put on a good bit of weight — it had crept up to nearly 16 stones and I struggled to stick to a diet to lose it.
I’d only been to the gym once in recent years but got half way through the session and had to leave. I found that if you want to go to a gym to lose weight it can be quite intimidating, which is why Focus Fit was such a great thing to get involved in.
As my weight increased, my psoriasis and asthma had worsened and I had mild sleep apnoea, which was starting to affect my work. I’d have to pull my car over at the roadside to have a sleep, as I work as an area sales executive travelling across Northern Ireland.
Two and a half years ago, I heard that Cancer Focus NI was holding a Focus Fit challenge with Fit-2-Function gym in Cookstown as part of men’s health month. You get fitter and raise money for the charity at the same time, so there’s an added incentive. A friend was doing it and I knew the guy who owns the gym — they both encouraged me to get involved.
It was a six-week project which helps people get healthier to help lower their risk of cancer. We went to the gym for an hour four times a week with professional trainers.
Once you got into the routine it became easier. It was also brilliant because the other 19 guys in the group had the same goals. Most of them were starting from a low fitness level and we were all improving together.
We were also given a healthy eating plan. My wife Cathy stuck to the new diet, too, and it made a huge difference to have that support at home. Cathy was very understanding and I think this was a massive part of me losing weight.
Over the six weeks, I lost a stone, my sleep apnoea improved, and our group raised an amazing £20,000 for Cancer Focus NI, which was fantastic.
But I didn’t want to stop there. After the Focus Fit challenge I didn’t want to lose my new-found fitness and wanted to keep going in this new direction. The most important thing was that Cancer Focus NI gave me the push, the drive and the vision to turn around my whole routine and put me on the path to a healthier lifestyle.
A lot of it is believing in yourself and pushing yourself. I learned how to swim and a friend and I set ourselves more challenges and completed a few triathlons. Then we did the Gaelforce West adventure race, a 67km round of cycling, kayaking, running and hiking. I never thought I’d be able to do anything like that.
I’ve got the bug now and I recently completed my first ever half marathon — and running is one of my weaknesses. When I started Focus Fit I couldn’t run for two minutes never mind a few hours.
I’m down to 12 and a half stones, which is about right for me; but it’s not all about the weight loss, it’s more about being healthy and feeling good. My asthma is brilliant and the psoriasis has cleared up.
I’m going from strength to strength and I’ll probably do six or seven triathlons this year. If I can do this anyone can do it, you just have to knuckle down and put in the work and the results will follow.”
‘Singing your heart out among friends can really lift your spirits’
Retired accountant Alan Gordon (68), from Newtownabbey, is married to Sarah and they have five children and five grandchildren. He got the news he had lymphoma three years ago and he also has Parkinson’s Disease. Alan urges more men to join support groups, which he says can help them get their lives back on track after a cancer diagnosis. He says:
I go to Cancer Focus NI’s art therapy and the Sing for Life choir (a partnership between the charity and the Crescent Arts Centre) and I’ve found them both excellent ways of making new friends, sharing experiences and picking up tips on how to cope with various side-effects from treatment.
Very few men seem to take up these therapeutic services but they are really missing out — I find it all great crack. Joining a group is one way to mix with people again if you’ve been out of circulation for a while and reclaim your social life.
My cancer journey began when I found a bump on the left side of my neck about three years ago and went to the doctor — I’m a typical man, I only went because my wife sent me.
I had a biopsy followed by an operation to remove my left lymph gland, then a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. When my hair started to fall out, I didn’t like that and cut it all off.
I didn’t really go out during the months I was having chemo as my immunity was low but I missed the company of other people.
Joining the choir has played such a positive role in my journey — it’s been so therapeutic and a tremendous support for me at a very difficult time in my life.
You can feel very low but singing your heart out among friends can really lift your spirits. It gives you a real sense of achievement and motivation. Some people are better at it than others but being exposed to music is a therapy in itself.
Then I heard about Cancer Focus NI’s art therapy and went along, although I’m not an artist. With art therapy you have to concentrate, so you can’t worry about other things, which I find helpful.
Cancer is talked about quite openly in art therapy, which is a more intimate group than the choir. There’s no pressure to talk if you don’t want to, but you can listen to others and gain some insights from that.
There’s a lot to be said for therapeutic services and men should get more involved.”
- To find out more about the Keeping Well van or other services email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 028 9066 3281 or visit www.cancerfocusni.org. If you’d like more information about the Sing for Life community choir email email@example.com.