I still recall my Nan – or the local news, as we called her, stood at her garden gate in the 1970s. This was where she shared gossip. Hours of curtain twitching meant she knew who’d come home late with a strange man, who had failed to dip their nets, and – most importantly – who was sick. The woman at number 43 had taken to her bed, and I wanted to know why, and hid behind Nan’s front door, ears pricked … but when the moment came to confirm her illness, Nan’s voice dropped to a whisper.
And now I understand why. Back then, Cancer was a dirty word.
A month ago, my life changed. First a doctor, then a urologist and then two more doctors looked at my toilet parts. They tested, scanned and vanished into a room to confer. In a curtained side ward, a doctor with lovely eyes (the effect offset by a pink hairnet) told me it looked like cancer. He couldn’t be sure, but what lurked in my scrotum looked suspicious.
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Suspicious is a word I associate with men in dirty rain coats who watch young boys play football. I wanted to know was it cancer.
As if sensing my irritation, he spoke slowly. The only way to know for sure what was going on was to remove my suspicious ball and run tests. Testicular cancer, he said could only be confirmed or denied by a biopsy. It wasn’t like other cancers where doctors could take a slice of any suspicious growth. This was an all-or-nothing deal. And I signed a form that confirmed I couldn’t have my ball back.
It was like being back behind Nan’s front door listening for gossip. Cancer was still a dirty word.
I had the surgery, and then came my first appointment with an oncologist. This was when the truth hit. Oncology meant cancer. I joked that this would be my ‘Welcome to Cancer’ orientation meeting. Even though, secretly, I hoped this might be where someone apologised profusely and said it actually wasn’t cancer after all.
Nervously, I sat next to my partner and the doctor delivered his opening line: ‘I have good news’. He went on to tell me how my tumour was huge. This put me in the high risk group for recurrence. I’d need a CT scan, and a single session of infusion chemotherapy. One that wouldn’t make my hair fall out or my gums bleed or anything.
‘So I have testicular cancer?’ I said.
He looked surprised that I’d not worked this bit out … and maybe that was something he’d said (or assumed someone else had said), but he nodded.
Yes I had it. In fact, I have it.
The treatment he’d explained would control and hopefully get rid of it. The scan would check it hadn’t spread. The chemotherapy would ‘mop up’ any stray cancerous cells.
‘You could have it Friday afternoon and be back at your desk on Monday.’ I’m assured it’s lightweight and like having a bad hangover.
The alternative would be to take my chances and if it came back (almost a one in two chance), face at least three months of devastating chemotherapy. With this single dose of ‘light’ chemo, the risk drops to 3%. It wasn’t a hard choice.
Afterwards, my partner and I discussed the meeting.
‘I’d hate to hear him deliver bad news,’ Mr Fanning said, and I agreed.
But then I thought about all the people I know whose lives have been impacted by this awful disease. How little hope they were given. My doctor had spoken of a ten-year surveillance plan. And even though the word surveillance sounds horrible, it means someone expects me to live a long time … and get over this.
And hearing someone say the c-word out loud and connect it with my name was hard to take. But I’d rather know what I have than deal with, rather than face something suspect.
It could be you
This isn’t only a disease that hits young men. I’m 53. And yes, the treatment sounds horrible. After that ‘good news’ meeting, my spirits sapped and I hit a downer. But it’s in us all to bounce back. Like a ball – though obviously not a suspicious one.
The long and short of it is that you will lose a much-loved bollock. There is a scar, and you’ll have to whip your trousers down in front of strangers. But testicular cancer is not an automatic death sentence. Unless you ignore that lumpy, harder than the other one or slightly-swollen ball, in which case it is.
April is testicular cancer awareness month. If you don’t already know how to self examine, here’s some help.
Why am I telling you this?
I made a decision to share my cancer story and my experience because I was scared, and didn’t know what to expect. There are groups out there who know all there is to know about testicular cancer. Guys who have been through it, guys going through it, guys terrified that they’ve found a lump or something that doesn’t feel right. I’ll continue to talk about my journey until someone confirms I’ve become a cancer bore. If it helps just one person speak to one doctor, I’ll be happy.
Check ’em lads runs a Twitter and Facebook page, along with a bunch of video resources – and what these guys don’t know about the subject, isn’t worth knowing. The founder of this vital charity explains it thus: “I really just wanted advice and to talk to someone who had actually been through it. There were charities that offered help but I wanted someone who knew from personal experience.”
The NHS website also offers sane, simple advice, as does Cancer Research UK, and Macmillan. Beyond this, there are lots of smaller groups and sites, but avoid those forums run by idiots. The sort who are only too ready to tell you about how someone they knew died within two days or how it’s some form of some kind of God’s revenge on a lifestyle – they do exist.