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‘I went to the GP with a football injury and found out I’d testicular cancer’

By Stephanie Bell

Patrick Cunningham believes a nasty football injury could well have saved his life. Like many men, the 45-year-old Belfast civil servant did nothing when he discovered a lump on one of his testicles in October 2012.

If he hadn’t sustained an ankle injury while playing a friendly football game, he might never have gone to his GP and, five months after first noticing it, mentioned the lump which turned out to be cancerous.

Patrick has just returned to work after a traumatic year of surgery and treatment and is naturally overjoyed to have been given the news that he is now clear of cancer.

But the trauma of what he has been through is still very real and he reckons it could be months before his body fully recovers from the effects of chemotherapy.

The fact that he took so long to act when he found the lump haunts him, and he is now determined to highlight the need for men not only to check themselves regularly, but also to go to their doctor if they find anything suspicious.

Just this month, a new survey revealed that 68% of men in the UK don’t know how to check themselves for the disease, and 50% would shy away from showing their GP if they discovered a lump.

“I ignored it,” admits Pat. “I had no pain or symptoms, so I thought I had nothing to worry about, although it was niggling at the back of my brain.

“I think machismo definitely played a part in it. I find it incredible now that so many men — and I was one of them — don’t act when they find something and don’t check themselves.

“The Giro d’Italia is all in pink for breast cancer awareness. We need to get to that level with testicular cancer for men and have the same sort of awareness.

“Like breast cancer, early detection of testicular cancer saves lives. It is a cancer you can survive although for me it was a real eye opener what you have to go through to survive it.

“Young men especially don’t think about checking themselves and they are most at risk. We need to get the message out that young men in the 17-26 year age group are in the danger range for testicular cancer.

“Two young men who were treated along with me in Belfast City Hospital had left it until they were in agony before they went to their GPs. One was so bad he could barely walk with the pain in his back.

“That needs to change and the only way to do it is through awareness.”

Pat’s nonchalant reaction to his lump is even more startling when you learn his family history. Cancer has been like a black cloud overshadowing his loved ones for many years.

His mum Marie died in 1996 aged 52 from lung cancer. She lost six of her eight siblings to various forms of the disease over the years. Pat’s wife Ciara (37) also lost her sister, Sinead McLaughlin, from pancreatic cancer on October 30, 2013, while coping with the worry of Pat going through tests for the disease.

Pat got the news that he was to start chemo on the day after they buried Sinead.

“Of nine children in my mum’s family, only two are alive and the rest all died young from cancer,” he says.

“Strangely though, I had always thought of myself as having my dad’s gene pool and never considered that I would ever get cancer.

“My dad’s family all lived into their 80s and 90s and because I am physically fit, I saw myself as more like my father and didn’t even think I would get cancer in the first place.

“That’s probably why I ignored the lump. The ankle injury was pretty nasty and when it wouldn’t heal, I made the appointment.

“After the doctor examined my ankle, I mentioned the lump. Looking back, maybe part of me was looking for an excuse to get to the GP about the lump, and the ankle gave it to me.”

While Pat was undergoing tests for cancer, his wife, Ciara, was dealing with the devastation that her sister, Sinead (44), was terminally ill with the disease. Sinead was diagnosed in April 2013 and passed away on October 30.

“I got the letter to say that I had to start chemo on the day after Sinead’s funeral,” recalls Pat. “That was some day. I really don’t know how my wife held it together.”

When Pat first mentioned the lump to his GP on March 25 of last year, it was suspected that it was a harmless cyst.

He was referred for a scan but the referral was non-urgent and it wasn’t until July that he got an appointment for an ultrasound scan. Still believing he had nothing to worry about, he was shocked to receive a call that night to say that he had an appointment with an oncologist the following morning.

“That floored me,” he says. “They still hadn’t used the language of cancer and even then I still didn’t think the worst.

“When I saw the oncologist, he said that I might need surgery and that it was a bit more serious than they first thought.

“Then he mentioned the possibility of chemotherapy and two days later I was booked in for surgery and had my right testicle removed and was home that night.” Pat had no problem coming to terms with the removal of his testicle. For him, it was a practical necessity and merely part of the process towards making him better.

“The information I got reassured me. I was told it wouldn’t affect my ability to have children or sexual relations and so to me it was something I had to do.” He is full of praise for the hospital staff, who acted so swiftly to deal with the cancer, and for the way in which they kept him informed and supported him every step of the way.

He started chemo in November and had four five-day cycles, which finished at the end of January this year.

He believes the fact that he was physically fit made a huge difference to how his body coped with the treatment.

“I played football four or five times a week every week for the past 20 years and I think that helped get me through.

“Chemo is tough. Your immune system breaks down significantly and I had to be admitted to hospital a couple of times with serious infections.

“The cumulative effect is the real killer. It ended in January and it wasn’t until the middle of March that I started to feel myself again.

“It has left me with nerve damage on my legs, feet and hands, which could be short-term — anything from three months to a year — or it could be permanent.

“I’m back playing football, although I’m really struggling. I am trying to do all I can in relation to self-help.”

It was on April 3 that Pat got a phone call to tell him his most recent scan showed that the chemo had done its work and his body was now clear of cancer.

He will attend the hospital for review appointments every three months for the next year.

He returned to work in April and is determined to get his life back to normal.

While he remained positive throughout his treatment, he understandably had his first wobble when the results of his final scan were due.

“That phone call was the best news you could get, but it was only when waiting for the results that I started to get my head round it and I got a bit scared,” he says.

“Up until then I always believed I was going to get through it. But waiting for the results I asked, ‘What if’ for the first time and I think that was also the first time I felt a bit sorry for myself.

“It all feels a bit surreal and I think I am only getting to grips with it now.”

Pat says he feels extremely lucky to have come through it and out the other end. He praises the staff at Belfast City Hospital’s cancer clinic for what he described as their amazing care and support.

Now Pat wants to play his part in helping create awareness, driven by the shock of the reality of his own situation and those of the two young men he got to know while going through treatment.

“One of those young men’s testicle was so enlarged and rock-hard he was too embarrassed to tell his wife, never mind his doctor,” he says. “The two of them were in agony before they got help.

“Sadly, that’s the reality for a lot of men. I’ve already talked to my best pal of 25 years about the need to tell his two sons, who are 21 and 16, to check themselves.

“I don’t know whether it’s embarrassment or laziness which stops men going to their GPs, but my message to them is — ‘Catch yourself on, this is your life’.

“I know that sounds very stark, but men do need to start checking themselves and I would love to see some sort of awareness campaign.”

 

What to be on the look out for ...

Regular self-examination will help you become more aware of the normal feel and size of your testicles, so that any abnormalities can be spotted early on. Signs to watch out for include:

  • A lump in either testicle
  • Any enlargement of the testicle
  • A feeling of heaviness in the scrotum
  • A dull ache in abdomen or groin
  • A sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum
  • Growth or tenderness of the upper chest

If you do have any of these symptoms, don’t just wait and hope that they disappear — go and get them checked out by your doctor. Most lumps are not cancerous but the earlier you find out, the earlier you can get any necessary treatment

 

The good news is it’s curable:

  • Testicular cancer primarily affects younger men and is the most common form of the disease in men aged between 15 and 44
  • Around 2,000 men a year in the UK are affected
  • Since 1975, the incidence of testicular cancer has more than doubled — and the reasons for this are not yet known
  • Thanks to advances made at the Institute of Cancer Research, home of the Everyman Appeal, the cancer is now more than 95% curable

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