Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Cancer and early detection

As Action Cancer's Action Man campaign kicks off in June by offering free health checks, Helen Carson speaks to three men who owe their lives to early diagnosis of the disease

Richard Clarke with his wife Karen and daughters Abbie (4) and Emily (5mths). Picture Martin McKeown. Inpresspics.com. 10.5.13

As Action Cancer's Action Man campaign kicks off in June by offering free health checks, Helen Carson speaks to three men who owe their lives to early diagnosis of the disease

With 11 men in Northern Ireland diagnosed with cancer every day, and boys as young as 15 vulnerable to testicular cancer, a new campaign is urging them to Get A Grip on their health.

 Leading local charity Action Cancer is offering 700 free MOT health checks for men province-wide as part of its Action Man campaign -- due to begin in June. The move by Action Cancer is aimed at encouraging men of all ages not to shy away from GP check-ups if they suspect or feel something is not right with their health.

Male-specific cancers such as testicular and prostate cancers can be treated, but early detection is essential.

Malachy Nixon, Action Cancer's male health promotion officer, says: "Every year in Northern Ireland there are approximately 4,000 men diagnosed with cancer -- that's 11 men every day.

"Although men are 16% more likely to develop cancer than women, they are 40% more likely to die from the disease.

"This has been attributed to poor lifestyle choices such as an unhealthy diet and taking less exercise, and reluctance to discuss personal health matters."

Mr Nixon warns, though: "By not monitoring their health they are at a higher chance of not detecting cancer or other serious conditions at an early, and hopefully more treatable, stage of the disease."

The MOT healthchecks provide men with a snapshot of their general health, which will enable them to make good choice about their diet, drinking, smoking and exercise habits.

While the checks are not a diagnosis of cancer, they measure blood pressure, cholesterol and other factors, along with lifestyle advice and information on male-specific cancers.

Rugby star Chris Henry, who is backing the campaign, says: "By paying more attention to our health, and approaching our GPs if we have any concerns, we can actively help to keep ourselves fighting fit."

Here, three sufferers tell their stories of how cancer changed their lives.

Richard Clarke (33) plays for Portadown Football Club and lives in Castlederg with wife Karen and children Abbie (4) and four-month-old Emily. He says:

Back in March 2012 I was playing in a match against Coleraine. When play had stopped the goalkeeper kicked a ball out that hit me where it hurt, making me fall to the ground.

On later examination I noticed a lump on my testicle. I kept on playing during the season but did notice that it was getting bigger and I had a few pains in my abdomen.

Two months later I was at my GP's for something unrelated and was asked if there was anything else concerning me. Although I was embarrassed, I asked him to check the lump on my testicle.

After he had examined it, he confirmed that there was 'something there that shouldn't be'. He then referred me for an ultrasound. The next day I got a phone call to say that there was an ultrasound appointment available, so I nipped over for it during  lunch. The radiographer confirmed that there was something 'nasty' there, and that she was sending the results to the GP.

I was to visit him the following day -- then I started to get nervous. At the back of my mind I kept thinking, 'Is it testicular cancer?' I hadn't told my wife I was going for the ultrasound as she was in the early stages of pregnancy. I told her afterwards that I had been to get a scan and had to see my GP again, but played it down, telling her it was probably a cyst.

The next day the GP told me that they had found a tumour and he was 99% sure that it was cancerous. That took the wind right out of my sails.

We had just told our families the baby news and had been on such a high, now this turned everything on its head -- everyone was really shocked.

In June I went in to Altnagelvin Hospital to have an orchidectomy (an operation to remove the testicles) to remove the tumour. The surgeon said it looked like they had caught it in its early stages.

I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed just a little at hearing this. We just had to wait a few weeks for the biopsy results. A week or so later my wife and I returned to get the results. Before the urologist started to speak with us he asked a cancer nurse to join us.

We both looked at each other. This wasn't going to be good. It was cancerous -- a mixed tumour consisting of about 20% teratoma (an aggressive type of cancer). They had found traces in my bloodstream and I was to be referred to the cancer centre for treatment.

We had booked a family holiday to EuroDisney in Paris for the start of July and were unsure if we should go, but due to a delay in my treatment starting, my GP advised us to go ahead. One week wouldn't make any difference.

I started my chemotherapy on August 12. The first part of the first cycle was OK, but I reacted badly to the second part and had to be brought back in to hospital a number of times. Mentally and physically the whole ordeal was a tremendous strain on all the family. The travelling from Castlederg to Belfast every day was tough, especially on my pregnant wife, but with the help of friends and family we got through it.

Two months later my blood levels returned to normal and the traces of cancer had left my blood. I'm feeling good now -- about 90% back to normal. I've just had my six months' all-clear, but will continue to be checked up every three months for the next year and a half.

I'm still not back playing for the first team at Portadown but I have been managing and coaching the reserve team.

The positive I take from my cancer is the people I have met through it. I have befriended so many testicular cancer survivors and got involved in lots of different activities to help raise awareness of the disease.

Because of where the cancer is, there is still that stigma attached to testicular cancer. The testicles are just another part of the body where cancer will attack.

My advice to men is: if you notice any unusual change with your testicles, go to see your doctor immediately.

Your health is in your own hands. The earlier it is detected, the better the chance of successful treatment."

John Barr (49) works for the Housing Executive. He lives in east Belfast with his wife and two teenage sons Gareth (18) and Owen (14). He says:

It all began in 2004, three months after I had turned 40, when everyone was joking about things starting to go downhill. It was the May Day bank holiday and my alarm went off by mistake at 6am. In my haste to turn it off quickly, I knocked it off the bed stand, still bleeping. I had to stretch out of bed to reach it and a pain shot through my groin. I thought at first that I had pulled something.

As I started to rub the top of my leg I rubbed against my testes and something didn't feel quite right. On further inspection I realised there was something wrong, there seemed to be a lump. My thoughts spiralled from 'I'm sure there's nothing wrong' to 'how long have I got left to live?'

A few days previously I had called my doctor to ask for a prescription for hayfever medication. They had noticed I hadn't been at the doctor's for four years or so, so had booked me in for a general health check up that Wednesday. I thought I'd bring this concern up then but said nothing to my wife as I didn't want to worry her unnecessarily.

During the check-up the doctor asked if there was anything else worrying me. A little hesitantly I asked if she could have a look 'down there'. Following an examination she said there was definitely some swelling, and although there could have been many reasons for this, advised a check-up at the City Hospital.

At this stage I thought it best to tell my wife what was happening. At hospital, an ultrasound detected a mass. The results were sent to my consultant that day, who, after examining the images advised that he was 99% sure, even without conducting a biopsy, that it was testicular cancer. I needed to have surgery to remove the mass and see if the cancer had spread. Due to a cancellation they had an available slot the next day.

It all happened so quickly. I understood what the doctor was saying, but it just wasn't sinking in. When I called my wife to update her, she was very calm. She works in the City Hospital so she is familiar with the processes involved. I went in to surgery the next day. I had the mass removed and a prosthesis inserted. The mass was sent for further testing and the results were due in a few weeks -- the longest of my life.

The results showed that it was a seminoma cancer -- a 'good' kind of cancer, slow growing and treatable -- and that it didn't seem to have spread. I then had a full body CT scan to see if there was cancer anywhere else in my body and thankfully the results were clear. Once I had recovered fully from my surgery I had a three-week course of radiotherapy. In the second and third week of treatment I found myself completely exhausted.

We decided to go on a short family holiday to Spain to recoup. As the boys were young, we decided not to tell them. A number of weeks later I returned to work, part time at first to ease myself in. It was great to be back in the real world again.

For five years after my treatment I attended the City Hospital every six months for a number of tests to make sure I was still OK. Now I have annual check-ups. I feel great and am looking forward to the future. I'm only a number of months away from my 50th birthday, a milestone I am looking forward to reaching.

I know that men traditionally don't pay much attention to their health, and that illnesses such as testicular cancer aren't talked about as much as they should be, but this ought to change. Testicular cancer is most common in younger men aged between 15 and 45, but the good news is that if caught at an early stage is easily treated and almost always curable.

My advice to all men, from teenagers upwards, would be to 'Get a Grip'. If there's a problem -- get it checked out -- don't die of embarrassment.

Gus Barry (61) lives in Pontyzpass, Newry. He is married to Jillian (61) and has a son Jonathan (35) and a daughter Ciara (31). He says:

I was diagnosed with prostate cancer just over eight years ago. Both my father and brother died from prostate cancer so as a matter of routine, as opposed to any concern at the time, I attended an Action Man clinic in Belfast and had a test done to check the health of my prostate.

Although my results weren't particularly abnormal, due to my family history, I was referred to the City Hospital where I was later diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was devastated. I hadn't any reason to think anything was wrong with me. I both felt and looked well, but I had cancer.

One month later (February 2005) I underwent a radical prostatectomy which is the removal of the prostate gland. I was out of hospital four days later and my life returned to normal slowly but surely.

Given what I've been through I understand more than most that it's essential to be self-aware and to attend health checks where and when possible.

Traditionally men can be quite lax about their health, but I would encourage them not to die of embarrassment. It's always worth going to your doctor and getting checked out. It is because of early detection that I am alive and well."

 

How to become an Action Man

* Action Cancer developed the Action Man Programme that helps workplaces support the health and wellbeing of their male employees. Each employee will benefit from an initial MOT health check and using the results from the check, can set their own personal targets, such as weight loss or increased muscle mass. With support from Action Cancer, men are encouraged to make practical and positive lifestyle changes and to reach them within a set 12-week period.

* The second check at the end of the 12 weeks will measure any change and gauge the progress made.

* To date, organisations which have supported the development of the programme include Marks & Spencer, Bombardier, Chain Reaction Cycles, Northern Ireland Housing Executive and a number of the local councils and health trusts.

*  Book an MOT health check at Action Cancer House, Belfast (available every Thursday in June) or onboard the Big Bus, visit www.actioncancer.org or call Action Cancer on 028 9080 3344.

* The regional Men’s Health Clinics: Enniskillen (June 4), Newry (June 11), Derry/L’Derry (June 18) and Ballymena (June 25) operate on a drop-in basis.

Appointments cannot be booked.

 

Famous men who have survived cancer

* Snooker legend Jimmy White discovered he had testicular cancer after a routine medical examination in 1995. After treatment he and his wife had a baby son, Tommy, three years later

* Abrasive TV presenter Jeremy Kyle admitted he broke down in tears before undergoing surgery for testicular cancer. He was diagnosed with the disease at the end of 2012 but returned to work in February

* Tough guy actor Robert De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 at the age of 60. He made a full recovery after undergoing treatment and some surgery

* Last year Lord Of The Rings star Sir Ian McKellen revealed that he had been battling prostate cancer for nearly seven years. The disease was contained, according to the 74-year-old, and he did not have any treatment

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