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Speaking up to help Northern Ireland men in Movember


Second chance: Ian Campbell started a charity cancer after his cancer treatment
Second chance: Ian Campbell started a charity cancer after his cancer treatment
Second chance: Ian Campbell started a charity cancer after his cancer treatment
Healthy outlook: Aaron Watson
Aaron Watson with grandson Cole
Reaching out: Caleb Griffin volunteers with YouthLife in Derry
Reaching out: Caleb Griffin volunteers with YouthLife in Derry

By Leona O’Neill

The annual campaign involves men growing a moustache this month to raise awareness of prostate cancer, testicular cancer and mental ill-health. Leona O’Neill talks to three Northern Ireland men about their experiences.

'The hospital was great and after surviving cancer I decided to set up a charity to help people living in poverty'

Ian Campbell (73), a retired construction industry worker from Glengormley, is married to Evie and they have two children, Sarah (46) and Ducan (45). Ian was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 while being declared bankrupt and losing his family home.

Second chance: Ian Campbell started a charity cancer after his cancer treatment

His cancer was detected while he was undergoing a medical examination to have a loan approved.

"We got quite a big loan from the bank to start a business venture," he says. "Our house was guaranteeing the amount, a quarter of a million pounds. Because of my age, they wanted me to go for a medical. At that stage I had been having a bit of a problem, as many men that age do, with an enlarged prostate and having difficulties going to the toilet. Again, like a lot of men, I just ignored it and didn't go to the doctor.

"When I went for the medical, it threw up the high prostate specific antigen (PSA) reading. I had no idea about what they were even talking about. They sent me for a biopsy and I was told I had prostate cancer.

"They are supposed to break this news gently to you. To do it nicely. After they do the biopsy they send a letter to the patient asking them to come in to talk to the oncologist about the results, and they send a letter to the oncologist with the results.

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"In my case they sent them the wrong way around and I got the oncologist's letter which was very blunt, medical and to the point. My wife opened it, looked at it and said 'you have prostate cancer'."

Ian says he wasn't really shocked by the news. At the time, he and his wife were also navigating a bad business deal and facing the prospect of losing their home.

"I had spoken to a friend of mine who was a doctor," he says. "He more or less explained about the PSA and the biopsy, that they were looking for prostate cancer. So I had a fair idea what was coming. The word cancer is not nice at all, but it wasn't a huge shock out of the blue.

"It came at a horrible time in our lives. We were losing our house, losing everything and then I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember sitting in the waiting room waiting to go in for radiotherapy. I would be getting all these emails on my Blackberry phone about the business going and losing the house. Going to the hospital was probably the most positive thing in my life at that time. It was something that I could grab on to.

"It was an awful time. All the most stressful things were happening at the one time. We did lose our house in the end.

"I remember going to the oncologist at the start of the treatment and thinking that I didn't care if she tells me that I have six months to live. There was one stage I almost wished she had told me I had six months to live, that's how bad it was."

Ian says that treatment worked well and he was able to get back on his feet.

"The cancer hospital here in Belfast was just amazing," he says. "I had an abundance of scans and radiotherapy every day for seven weeks and hormone treatment also, which I hated.

"The hormone treatment stops your testosterone. You get hot flushes, your chest grows. As a man it is an uncomfortable thing to go through. The treatment itself knocked me for six. I was totally exhausted and it left me a bit incontinent.

"Thankfully I didn't have to have chemotherapy. That was the treatment over. I was brought back every few weeks to begin with and then every six months. That was almost eight years ago. Last year my oncologist sent for me and said that she didn't want to see me anymore. That's not a nice thing to say, unless it's words coming from an oncologist!"

Ian came out the other side of treatment, realised he had been given a second chance at life and set up a charity - Ten Foundations - to help people in the Philippines.

"I thought I could use the skills that I have in a positive way," he says. "I went out on a trip to the Philippines after all my treatment and I saw the poverty and met some people out there. I saw children the same age as my grandchildren living on the streets and it just touched my heart. I came back and set the wheels in motion about registering as a charity and the rest is history.

"With our Livelihood Programme, we help women get out of impoverished situations by providing them with the necessary skills and resources to learn how to use an industrial sewing machine. With this knowledge, they are then able to work and provide for their families in a sustainable manner.

"There are a lot of people who depend on me and it keeps me getting up in the morning."

'The campaign is incredible and I want to show how vital it is for men  to examine themselves'

Aaron Watson (39), from Bangor, is married to Justine and they have two teenage sons, a stepdaughter and a grandson. Aaron was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was in his early 20s.

Healthy outlook: Aaron Watson

"In 2002, when I was 22 years old, I had really bad pains in my testicles in which went up into my stomach and into my groin and my knee," he says. "I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew what testicular cancer was. I went to the doctor and he thought it might be a cyst. He said that if it was growing they would remove it and if it wasn't I would have to just stick the pain.

"I begged them for a scan, which I got six weeks later and the pain turned out to be varicose veins.

"When they were checking my testicles the left one was fine, but the right one had a tumour there. It wasn't the cause of my pain. They found it by fluke. It was so early on they couldn't feel the tumour, it was only showing up in a scan. It was very small. But they hadn't said at that stage that it was cancer.

"The doctor gave me the scan and asked me if I had anyone with me. My partner was there. The doctor told me to go to floor three. We went up on the lift and the door opened and there in big letters were the words 'cancer ward'. That is how I found out.

"Eventually a doctor told me about the cancer and it was brutal. I was in shock and it was all a bit of a blur. The doctor was asking me if I understood and I didn't. He told me I was going to have to have an operation. I don't even remember the exact words that were said. I was just shocked to my core. It was a haze."

Aaron spent the night in his hospital bed worrying for the future. His partner was expecting their first child together and he prayed that he would live to see him being born.

"It was a very scary experience," he says. "I thought I was going to die. After being told I had cancer I wasn't operated on until the next day. That day and that night I didn't know what type of cancer it was or if it had spread.

"I cried myself to sleep and prayed so hard that I would be at least able to see my son. I was thinking the very worst. I was only 22 years old and had just come back from Australia. It was mad.

Aaron Watson with grandson Cole

"I had the operation the next day. My testicle was removed. I went for scan after scan. I didn't have to have chemo because we caught it so early. Had I not gone to the doctor with the pain, it probably would have taken a few months to be found."

Aaron made a full recovery. His son was born six months after his diagnosis and his second son - a boy he calls 'his miracle child' - was born two years later. Aaron now works alongside the Friends of the Cancer Centre to promote the 'Talking Balls' campaign, to highlight the symptoms of testicular cancer and promote self checking.

"We want to get it across how important it is to check your testicles," he says. "We want men not to be ashamed or embarrassed. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. It's your health and your life. Don't put it off. You'd rather have your life. It's less than five minutes of awkwardness in a doctor's surgery.

"The Movember campaign is incredible. I think we need to talk about men's health all year round."

'I became very anxious after my parents got divorced but counselling helped me to resolve things in my mind'

Caleb Griffin is a 19-year-old Strathclyde University student from the Top of the Hill area of Londonderry.

Reaching out: Caleb Griffin volunteers with YouthLife in Derry

He says he is taking part in this year's Movember because he wants to get behind the whole overarching theme of men's health, particularly men's mental health, which he has been on his own journey with.

"My parents got divorced when I was in primary one," he says. "It was a very amicable divorce, better for both parties. Being the eldest child in the house - I have a younger brother and sister - everyone said to me that I was the man of the house. They were only joking but I think I took all that weight on my shoulders.

"When my brother and sister came into their teens I became very stressed out. I became this toxic, negative father figure. I was anxious all the time. I was uptight and controlling. I remember waking up from a nap one day and asking where my sister was. My mum told me she had walked down to the shop, which was just yards down the street. I totally panicked, I was furious and ran out after her. She was fine, but I had just got in such a state.

"It was the tipping point. I said to my mum that it wasn't good, that this wasn't normal behaviour and I needed help before something bad happens. I was just so anxious all the time. My mum got me involved in YouthLife, who provide support for children who have been affected by bereavement, separation, divorce or loss of a significant person, and Headliners' Journalist Programme, which was a great social outlet.

"I got counselling through YouthLife for 16 weeks. We did a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy where I was able to develop healthier thinking processes and become comfortable in my own situation. It amazed me what could be accomplished in 16 hours of talking."

Reaching out: Caleb Griffin volunteers with YouthLife in Derry

Caleb, who now volunteers as a peer mentor with YouthLife in Derry, says he would encourage other men to embrace the ethos behind Movember and get talking.

"Counselling was the beginning of me thinking that if there is anything bothering me, if I talk about it for long enough, I can come to some sort of resolution in my mind. The lows I felt just went away as I became more comfortable in the world," he explains.

"I would encourage other lads to reach out and talk, do something. I know it's sometimes not easy to reach out and start talking. There is such a stigma, and there's this toxic masculinity. I hope more young men speak out and say 'look, I need help, can someone talk to me?'"

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