Men supporting one another through prostate cancer
Nick Rowe from Bagenalstown, Liam Dowling from Castlecomer and Patrick Hughes from Bagenalstown vary in age and backgrounds but what they do share is the incredible support of Éist Cancer Support Centre as they faced their own prostate cancer fight.
Éist is one of a number of cancer support services affiliated to the Irish Cancer Society that run a Prostate Cancer Psychosocial Education Programme funded by Movember.
All three took part in the programme and are keen to share their fantastic experiences with other men newly diagnosed with this particular disease. The programme encourages honesty and openness, a support system of men facing the same dilemmas, where medical information, guidance and shared experience are powerful allies in the battle against prostate cancer.
Patrick admits he “wasn’t exactly running up the road” to come into the group at Éist when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015 at the age of 41.
“At the time, you have this fear in your head and you’re questioning am I doing the right thing going into this group … but now I know I definitely did the right thing,” said Patrick.
“Your family and friends don’t have any experience of prostate cancer and you’re trying to protect them from it and keep it to yourself, but really, the people that have the most information are the people who have it themselves… they have more information than you’ll ever find in a book,” he added.
“You need to be able to talk to someone or else you’ll go nuts,” said 47-year-old Nick, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January 2013.
“Anyone who came in here (to Éist) made the step to come and they never regret it. We talk about everything here and, really, who I feel sorry for are the men who haven’t come in here, who are sitting at home in silence and don’t have anyone to talk to.”
Roy Elmes facilitates both the prostate cancer programme and the men’s group at Éist.
“It’s an emotional blizzard for men who are diagnosed and the fact is that some men are going to feel embarrassed and shameful – it’s a devastating time for people,” he said.
“There is a perception that men don’t talk, but I see men on the programme talking freely and facing stuff that they need to. The important part of in here is that what is said in here stays in here. Confidentiality and safety is paramount.”
Liam (65) is a firm believer in educating yourself fully about your condition and talking control of your own health. From the moment of his diagnosis in 2012, he informed himself on the various treatments available, the possible outcomes and the medical treatments and aids that can make a huge difference to the lives of those living with prostate cancer.
Liam’s been a tower of strength to fellow group members, helping them to make informed choices about their treatment, including the vital importance of nerve retention for those facing surgery.
“The point about Éist is that you can’t present yourself too early to the group. You’re meeting maybe eight or nine men, all with different experiences of prostate cancer. That’s a huge amount of experience right there,” said Liam.
“What people may not understand is that when you are diagnosed, you almost straightaway may have to make a decision about various types of treatments,” he said. “With prostate cancer, it’s so easy to sweep it under the carpet; that’s why a forum like this is so powerful, to be part of this group dynamic and educate each other. That’s not sensationalising it; that’s just the truth.”
Feeling unwell and suspecting he had a cardio problem with pains down his arms and legs, Patrick was more shocked than anyone to be told he had prostate cancer. He had none of the ‘typical’ prostate cancer symptoms, such as trouble passing urine or increased frequency. Also, he wasn’t the age and was leading a busy, active life while working as a taxi driver.
Patrick’s PSA test (prostate specific antigen) showed raised levels and a subsequent biopsy confirmed prostate cancer, which resulted in surgery in September 2015.
Despite the incredibly difficult time he has endured, Patrick knows he’s “one of the lucky ones”. He required no further treatment after his surgery and, to date, his regular check-ups have been positive.
Liam had the more classic symptoms of prostate cancer. He was up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and then his doctor discovered “a pencil dot on the prostate”.
The continued elevated levels of his PSA in a matter of weeks led to a biopsy and then discussions on the best type of treatments.
Brachytherapy, which is an internal radiotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery were all considered before it was decided that for Liam surgery was the best option.
During a seven-and-a-half hour operation, other complications arose and Liam suffered a heart attack and bleed as medics battled to save his life. A week in ICU and several weeks in hospital followed before Liam was finally back on his feet.
Since then, Liam has undergone several procedures, some of which are the most advanced the country has to offer. His fellow group members laugh good-heartedly as they discuss the “lumps and bumps” that lurk under Liam’s belly as he gets his “waterworks” in order.
This light-hearted banter is also very much part of the group, the refreshing honesty often a huge relief to all.
Garda Nick Rowe underwent a routine Garda medical check in January 2013, where high-blood pressure was detected and they advised him to visit his own GP. “I had none of the symptoms, just tiredness, but at the time Gardaí had moved to ten-hour shifts and everyone was wrecked, so I put it down to that,” explains Nick.
A PSA test revealed a high reading. An infection was considered but a subsequent PSA just two weeks later indicated that levels had gone up even higher.
Ultimate, a biopsy revealed that Nick had prostate cancer. “I had no option, I had to have surgery, and they left me in no doubt as to what I was facing − they tell you in black and white,” said Nick.
In July 2013, Nick underwent da Vinci surgery, a robotic-assisted surgery to fully remove the prostate. His excellent care, thanks to the good health insurance he had, meant that radiotherapy followed, as traces of cancer were evident beyond the prostate. Nick finished his radiotherapy in 2015 and is currently on hormone therapy, which reduces testosterone, the hormone that prostate cancer cells depend on to grow. “I’m going through the menopause,” admits Nick. “Mood swings, increased appetite, reduced bone density … but eventually I’ll be back to square-one − they’ve told me that,” he says.
“Then it will be chemo … that’s probably a certainty.
“There are so many misconceptions about prostate cancer but you could have 100 men with prostate cancer in this room and no two will be exactly the same,” explains Nick.
“People can say things like ‘it’s the cancer to get’ but as the saying goes ‘if you want to know me, come live with me’,” admits Nick, as the other men nod in agreement.
All three men speak about the effect that prostate cancer has on relationships and family.
“With any cancer diagnosis there is a significant feeling of grief or loss; you think of your life pre-cancer and it’s never the same again. It’s surreal,” explains Roy.
“It’s a life-changing experience but also in a good way. Your value system changes and the material side of things has less of a say; simple things are suddenly important again.”
All of the men cannot stress enough the importance of males over 40 getting regular PSA checks and, even more importantly, a DRE (digital rectal exam).
“My message to all men is you need to have regular DREs. It may not be pleasant, but it's 30 seconds and it’s so important,” stressed Liam.
Reflecting the views of everyone in the group, Nick admits that “the battle is in the mind” when it comes to facing cancer. “I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of guy. You need to educate yourself, talk to people and get the help you need,” he said.
November is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about the signs, symptoms, risks and treatment of prostate cancer. Get involved in the fight against prostate cancer by joining the Movember movement - grow a mo, hold an event or take on a personal challenge and raise life-saving funds to support prostate cancer research and support and care for men facing prostate cancer.