Why we should be stepping out on the March for Men
Ahead of this Sunday's charity event at Belfast's Stormont Estate to raise funds for vital local research into prostate cancer, Linda Stewart talks to two men who were diagnosed with the disease and finds out more about the research
This week Prostate Cancer UK (PCUK) launched its new campaign to celebrate everything great about men and highlight the moments lost when a man dies every 45 minutes from prostate cancer. For the third time, the Belfast March for Men will take place at the Stormont Estate this Sunday.
The charity is urging walkers to back their campaign by completing a 2.5km, 5km or 10km route around the park, raising funds needed for vital research into the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, with the aim of saving lives.
Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling will also reprise his own March for Men, walking four marathons in four countries in four days from September 5-8, kicking off in Glasgow, before visiting Belfast on Friday, September 6 and then heading to Cardiff before a finale in London. He is inviting the Northern Irish public to pull on their walking boots to join him and support the charity to help stop prostate cancer being a killer.
Research fellow Dr Chris Armstrong (29), based at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen's University Belfast, says the money raised by Prostate Cancer UK is vital for funding research in Northern Ireland. His research, funded by PCUK, is investigating new ways to improve the effectiveness of radiotherapy.
"More than 1,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year in Northern Ireland," Chris says. "Sadly, 200 will die from the disease each year which falls in line with it being the second leading cause of male cancer-related deaths.
"It's now being picked up a lot earlier due to the introduction of the PSA blood test. Before that a lot of the diagnoses were coming at a later stage which is generally much more difficult to treat.
"Symptoms can be something as simple as more frequent urination or needing to get up at night more often to go to the toilet - and those symptoms can present for a number of other reasons."
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Chris says one of the reasons why prostate cancer research was lagging behind other forms of cancer was men's lax attitude to their health and their reluctance to get checked out.
"Now they're going to the doctor, they're standing up and making their voices heard," he says.
"Now, in 2019, there is a variety treatment options available to these men which have been developed following successful research.
"PCUK is one of the most consistent funders of cancer research in Northern Ireland and they invest in local research, so there are clinical trials which are available to men in Northern Ireland. If that research isn't funded, then those trials may not be accessible."
- To sign up for the Belfast March for Men, join Jeff Stelling in September or for more information, visit www.marchformen.org
Former Cliftonville captain Walter Mills (65), from Dunmurry, was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year after his boss encouraged him to get the blood test. He is married to Dianne (65) and they have two daughters, Danielle (40) and Victoria (38).
In April last year my boss asked me had I ever had the blood test for prostate cancer," he says. "I'd had the internal examination done four or five times because my father had prostate cancer, but I wasn't really aware of the blood test."
The blood test revealed a much higher reading than he should have had, and a follow-up biopsy revealed the presence of prostate cancer, Walter explains. Over the course of last year, the blood test readings went up and down and further biopsy and MRI results confirmed the prostate cancer diagnosis.
Walter's particular form of the disease made him suitable for brachytherapy, in which tiny seed-like radioactive implants are inserted into the affected area using needles under anaesthetic.
"Not everybody can have this - it depends on the type of disease you have. There are a few hundred men in Northern Ireland who have had brachytherapy," Walter says.
The seeds will remain in Walter's body for the rest of his life, gradually emitting small doses of radiation, and it means he has to carry a letter with him when he passes through airport security as he is liable to set the alarms off.
Walter admits he had a couple of difficult days in the lead-up to the operation, especially around Christmas.
"I got the flu jab the Saturday after I was out and it knocked me for six. I didn't know if it was the flu jab that was causing it or the treatment," he says.
"The I had a urine infection around New Year's Eve and I was wanting to go to the toilet at both ends - the doctor said that was due to the treatment. I did have a couple of 'feeling sorry for myself' days."
So far, the blood tests have revealed a reduced reading, but Water says it's too early to take anything for granted. At the moment he undergoes three-monthly tests.
"I've only had two tests so far and they've both been good news, but the consultant has told me it can bounce - go up and down," he says.
"Each time you go, you're always still worried that it will go back up again. I will have to wait until the next blood test to see whether it has come down a bit more.
"I'll not know for sure for four years - every time you go for a blood test you're on tenterhooks."
Walter says his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his 60s. That is why Walter made a point of regularly getting checked out for prostate cancer, even though he hadn't noticed many symptoms himself.
"The only thing I had noticed is that when I went to the toilet, there was a wee bit of dribbling. Other than that, I would have got up once during the night to go to the toilet," he says.
"But I'd always gone to the doctor about it because my father had it. It's something you feel a little awkward about, but the nurses and consultants in the hospitals couldn't have done more to make me feel at ease.
"My father couldn't get his head around it - he would say 'Why me? What did I do?' He just couldn't understand why. And I think he smit me with that. I was like 'Why me?'
"But my daughter said 'Somebody has to have it'. So, why not me? That's the way that it was. It's maybe fortunate they caught it pretty early on."
Walter says men are starting to wise up and realise they need to get their symptoms checked out.
"If my talking about it encourages other men to go and get a check-up, it's worth it," he says.
"I've been saying to people about getting the blood test and encouraging them to go.
"It's fortunate that my boss spoke to me about it at the time he did, because I'd probably have been walking about with it now and not knowing about it," Walter says.
Director of haulage company RCM Services, Raymond McKee (58) from Newtownards discovered he had prostate cancer after getting himself tested because a relative had been diagnosed with the disease. He is married to Marion (59) and they have five children - Jordan (32), Bruce (31), Cole (27), Rhys (23) and Regan (19).
Five years ago, Raymond travelled to Cambridge to undergo a form of surgery that wasn't available in Northern Ireland at the time and he has remained clear ever since.
"A relative of mine was diagnosed with prostate cancer and I went and got tested because he had been diagnosed. I was shocked and surprised to find that I had it, " Raymond says.
"I had surgery and had the prostate removed so I'm one of the lucky ones. I like to say I'm a survivor.
"Basically, I was a 53-year-old male and I was getting up in the middle of the night to go to the loo. That was the only symptom so it's not something that you would really suggest to be a problem."
Raymond was offered hormone therapy or radiotherapy but was told at the time that it would mean he would be unable to undergo surgery if the treatment didn't work.
"So I opted for surgery because if the surgery doesn't work, they might be able to follow up with radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Luckily enough, they got it all in one go," he says.
"At that time there was no surgery available in Northern Ireland so I went to Cambridge to undergo robot-assisted surgery - they have been doing it for quite some time over there. Now we have a robot in Northern Ireland - Prostate Cancer UK has been pushing hard to get this in."
Raymond spent nine days in Cambridge with his wife, including a post-operative check a week after surgery, before returning home to convalesce.
"There were a couple of telephone consultations with the guy who did the operation and after that everything seemed to go well for me. I had a blood test every three months and then it stretched out to every six months," he says.
"I am now five years totally cancer-free and it is very, very unlikely that it would come back."
Raymond says he was the type of person who was reluctant to go to the doctor.
"I was reluctant, but I can only say how glad I was to overcome that reluctance. I never went to the doctor - when I arrived the doctor asked if I was coming in for an HGV medical," he says.
Raymond admits it was a huge shock when he got the diagnosis.
"I was 53 years old and I thought 'This is bad'," he says.
"It's hard to explain. Looking back on it, time seemed to move quickly although it seemed slow at the time.
"The biggest problem is trying to remain positive throughout the whole thing. You try to remain positive as you go along and that was difficult.
"We kept it to ourselves - very few of our family knew about it and my wife was the biggest rock. Without her I wouldn't have got through it. Some of our children didn't even know until it was over."
Raymond says the main thing now is to make men aware of prostate cancer and to make sure they check out any symptoms - and that is why he is supporting the March for Men this weekend.
"There will be things there for everyone - men, women, children and dogs. There will 10k, 5k and 2.5k walks at Stormont," he says.
"There will also be an information stand - that is part and parcel of it, that we get this information across to men and their partners.
"I've been at stands and I've seen some men walking past and it's their wives that pick up the literature, have a brief look and then call their husbands back.
"Anybody who has any doubts about prostate cancer symptoms, I want to try and encourage them to go to the medical professionals and get the thing checked out.
"I've mentioned to men about getting a check and a couple of them have gone to their GPs and it turned out they had prostate cancer and got treated for it," Raymond adds.