Former footballer Paul Ferris’ second memoir recounts his diagnosis of and treatment for prostate cancer. He speaks about trying to become the man he once was
It would be understandable if Paul Ferris had thought life dealt him a poor hand.
The former Newcastle United winger had forged a successful post-football career as a physio, trained and worked as a barrister and became an author. In fact, as he was about to publish his first memoir, The Boy on the Shed, in which he described returning to health after a heart attack aged 48, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Does the final paragraph in the first memoir highlight what was to come for him? ‘I’ve felt the first chill of winter. I fear that it’s just around the corner for me.’
That was 2016 and last month, he published the follow up, The Magic in the Tin. It is a deeply personal, engaging and candid read, one that gives the Lisburn man space to talk about what happened next and the impact on him and his family.
“Someone asked me before if I had any embarrassment about writing stuff,” he says about the book’s contents, which feature surgery and consultations, among other things.
“Until I wrote the first book, I realised I didn’t know any other way to write other than just what I was feeling. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I genuinely don’t have the filter; what’s the point? I’m feeling this, I’m experiencing this, I need to tell people about this because it’s a lonely place to be sometimes. Just by telling people means people talk about it and you don’t feel so lonely.
“When you’ve written a book like that it doesn’t seem like you’re a shy person. I used to call myself shy, but I think it’s more introversion. I don’t think I’m someone who’s ever going to walk into a room and tell the world all my issues or if I was at a party, be at the front of the party and hold the room together.
“When I was writing the book, my wife would come in from work and I’d say, ‘I’ve written this, are you going to be embarrassed about me writing this, because I’m not#. I’d say to my son, who’s 25, if I had a chapter with some graphic content, ‘How do you feel about that?’ and he’d say, ‘That’s your journey, Dad, and I think you should tell it.’”
This he does well, without shying away from the realities of prostate cancer diagnosis, treatment side effects and living in its aftermath.
“When you’re sitting in a urologist’s office and he says you have a significant cancer, you’re 51 years old, and [he says] here’s your options. One option is that you can’t ignore this because it’s going to impact on your life so that’s out of the question, you can’t bury your head in the sand,” explains Paul.
“Here’s your two options for you: one is going down the surgical route. Then he explains all the side effects. At the time all you hear is, ‘get this thing out of me, get the cancer removed’ and you don’t hear the side effects. Or you can choose the radiotherapy route or the hormone route but here’s the side effects too and you don’t really hear those. But when you go down the route and you have cancer, you think, removed — in my case it wasn’t totally— suddenly those side effects that were mentioned to you in a doctor’s office become your whole life.
“When he says, ‘you may have erectile dysfunction, but I’ll try and spare the nerves of your penis’, you think, ‘Well, I’ll be damned, I’m 51, I’ll have erections all the time. I’ll have an erection in two weeks’ time,’” he laughs.
“The point is, afterwards you realise I’m not going to have an erection again, I’m one of the people that’s not going to happen for.
“And actually, that’s devastating for anybody. It’s devastating in a way that I didn’t realise; it goes right to the core of what makes you a man.
“I was talking to very helpful nurses and people who say it is possible to have sexual relations without an erection, it’s possible to have an orgasm without an erection.”
He apologises for being so frank, something he does throughout the interview.
But what he says is important, particularly for those going through similar treatment and discussions.
“In any kind of sexual relationship, an erection is a pretty important part of that. It’s OK saying you’ll do these thing, but it is miles away from being anything like you’ve experienced before.
“Even knowing you don’t have that ability makes you feel differently standing in a room when you have no intention of having an erection! It goes right to the core of who you are.”
Initially Paul chose the surgical route because hormone treatment may have affected his libido. However, as some cancer cells remained, he underwent radiotherapy, which did decrease sexual urges.
“So now you’re left with not only do you not have an erection, but you also no longer have the urge,” he explains.
“Again, as a man, as a woman, as a human being, that urge is part of who we are. I think I wrote in the book, ‘I feel I’m not the man I was’ and I haven’t quite come to terms with the man I am.
“That’s being brutally honest. I was trying to write away the pain in the book; I don’t think I fully succeeded in that.
“I’m blessed that I have an amazing wife who’s been my partner for an awful long time. If I was a single man now, I’d be absolutely crushed at where I am.”
Within The Magic in the Tin, wife Geraldine is frequently heralded for her consistent love and support. The couple has been together since she was 13 and Paul 15.
“She knows I’m not the man I was but before the surgery I wasn’t the man I was ten years ago; I wasn’t the boy I was at 15. You have to let each other grow.
“When I wrote the first book, it wasn’t as personal as this one, she went into school and her teacher friends who read the book would say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ And now she says she’s going into school and people who have read this book are hugging her for a bit longer.”
He laughs but says with feeling, ‘I know where I am with her.’
Being classified as a heart attack patient then a cancer patient would leave many feeling frustrated by life — it’s impossible not to feel like that, he says.
“I regard myself as a strong individual and from the outside looking in, you think he’s done this or that,” says Paul, who was the youngest player, at 16 years and 294 days old, to play for the Newcastle United’s first team.
“But those things happening so soon to each other… there’s only a three-year gap between having the heart attack and
all the fear of that and then three years later you’re dealing
with prostate cancer and the fear of that.
“The cancer thing terrifies me more than the heart thing. When you have a heart attack and the fear that that brings, you can go back outside again and you can run and exercise, you can change your diet and feel empowered.
“The cancer stuff, every day, when now I’m moving on and my PSA [prostate-specific antigen] is normal, the physical changes are really obvious. The obvious things are the bullet holes from the surgery, but the other obvious things are things that people don’t talk about.
“Which man wants to be told that your penis is going to shrink? The day I went for my surgery was the first day I genuinely heard my doctor say that.
“Whenever the prostate comes out, it gets pulled back in a little bit. Those physical changes are with me every day whereas with the heart thing, it wasn’t.
“I felt the same person; nothing changed other than I got a stent and got healthier, whereas now I feel entirely different.
“I was a bit angry about it and maybe a bit snappy with work or with my kids. I’d snap myself out of it and Geraldine would say, ‘Any chance of a smile today?’”
Someone, however, was to change how Paul saw life and transform his mental health: the arrival of granddaughter Isla.
“Isla was born around the same time as I was going through all of this. Every grandparent will know this, but it hit me like a thunderbolt.
“You can’t be sad, or anxious or depressed when you’re surrounded by toys and playing with the child or walking in the forest. That sounds cliched but I get a lot of my happiness… when she comes into the house, everything stops. I just want to be with her.
“I won’t be with her for the rest of her life but hopefully I’ll be with her for a long time. For the moment, she’s here and I’m here and she’s coming tomorrow night and they’re my favourite nights of the week.”
Isla too plays a role in the second memoir’s title.
“She has a magic tin that mysteriously sweets and chocolates and toys appear in. The magic in the tin is almost a metaphor for seeing the good in life after being kicked a couple of times, it’s seeing life through the eyes of a child,” says Paul.
“If she was sitting with you now and you’d say, ‘What’s that book?’ she’d say, ‘That’s mine and my grandad’s book.’ She would say, ‘I picked the red writing’ because she did — I said to the publishers that she liked the red writing.
“There’s a photograph on the cover of us in the forest and she’s asking, ‘Who puts the magic in my tin? Is it you, Grandad?’”
It’s difficult not to be moved by Paul’s story and his candour when talking about getting on with life, for Isla, Geraldine and his three sons, Conor, Owen and Ciaran.
“I wasn’t someone who just sailed through, I was very aware of the importance of my role in the family,” he says.
“It’s a difficult place to be, and I’ll get emotional now, when you’re talking to your adult sons.
“My youngest was 12 when I had the heart attack and 15 when I had the cancer.
“I had that fear with my mother and her health, and I never wanted my kids to have that, never. You want your kids to think you’re Superman.
“My kids don’t really read the books and we’re a really close family. I’ve said to my wife, ‘Why don’t the boys read the books?’ and she said, ‘I think it’s fear. They don’t want to see the detail.’
“My youngest son is at university and sent me a message last night. He’s listening to the audiobook and a very nice actor called Ruairi Conaghan does a brilliant job, and he’s talking into his ear as me. He said, ‘Dad, I’m thoroughly enjoying the book, but I had to turn it off in case I cried on the bus.’”
It’s family first and foremost we say.
“I said at the start that cancer can be a lonely place, but you make it a lonely place because you retreat from friends, retreat from social functions. Family becomes everything; it always has been everything, but you recognise that in the scheme of things, that’s all it is.”
The Magic in the Tin: One Man’s Journey Through Prostate Cancer by Paul Ferris, Bloomsbury, £16.99, is available in hardback, eBook and audiobook now