Health: Prostate cancer survivor offers hope to others

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Prostate cancer can be a sensitive subject for men to talk about, but here a Belfast businessman writes candidly about his diagnosis and treatment

I am sure you are wondering why I’m writing this article – most people don’t know I’ve been through radiotherapy treatment for prostate cancer in the last few months.

I went through more than seven weeks of treatment on a daily basis and didn’t miss one day at work. I am writing this very public article to encourage potential sufferers not to hide from this ailment which affects most men in later life.

Globally prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer related deaths in men.

Some 42,000 men are diagnosed with this cancer in the UK every year but the survival rate is high particularly if the occurrence is identified early and particularly before there is a chance for the cancer to spread into other parts of the body.

There are often no symptoms but early symptoms can include urinary dysfunction problems as the prostate gland surrounds the prostatic urethra. Thus changes in the gland can affect the urinary function – this change exhibits itself usually with increased frequency in need to go to the toilet and this can be particularly evidenced by the frequent need to waken to go to the toilet at night.

The glory about the NHS is that treatment is free. It is easy to visit your GP if you are having urinary problems. Invariably they will offer blood sampling or a PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) sample which should be done annually, usually from age 60.

The incidence of prostate cancer below the age of 50 is very rare but as in my family it happened with one of my brothers at the age of 46. That was the signal for the rest of us to ensure we had an annual PSA test.

When mine jumped from a reading of 2.8 to 9.6 the very distinctive elevation in the reading was the signal to send me to an urologist for a proper diagnosis. He immediately recommended a biopsy which confirmed the presence of cancerous cells and the need for action.

A subsequent MRI scan and a full body scan at the hospital served to confirm that the cancer was restricted to the prostate gland and that my cancer was readily treatable.

The treatment options were explained in detail by my urologist and after much research on various websites, as to the options, the urologist and I agreed that radiotherapy was the best option for me.

I was offered the option to have the prostate removed by operation but I opted for the more common and less invasive treatment of a new high tech radiotherapy called Volumetric Modulated Arc Radiotherapy (VMAT).

It should be noted that low grade forms of cancer, found in elderly men, often grows so slow that no treatment is required at all.

As I live in the suburbs of Belfast and particularly because I am in full time employment I was able to opt for the earliest appointment with the radiotherapy team at 7.30am each week-day morning.

It is quite an experience to find yourself mixing with 30 to 40 other patients as you go through the initial process of drinking lots of water so as to ensure the prostate gland is accentuated and easily targeted by the radiation machines.

There are 10 of these high tech machines called Linear Accelerators in the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital each one working flat out, treating hundreds of patients every week.

I use the word ‘machines’ but these are fascinating pieces of equipment which cost about £2.5 million each and there are 10 of them.

The skill of the radiotherapist lies in their ability to target the affected parts of the prostate while avoiding the unaffected normal organs. The time under actual radiotherapy is limited to no more than five minutes and there is no pain whatsoever during the procedure.

The attention to detail and the capacity of the staff to ensure you are getting maximum effect is truly admirable and it is all done with a typical Northern Ireland sense of humour.

You spend slightly more than an hour in the hospital and I was able to be in work by 9 o’clock each morning.

Having gone through the 37 daily treatments (don’t ask me why 37) I am delighted to say that I have been given a clean bill of health and I am writing this to assure people who have had similar concerns that the treatment is not a major problem and in fact over a period of seven weeks you make a lot of friends and only have to endure the tedium of the process, with no pain whatsoever.

One of the side benefits was that for 37 days you had the chance to meet and get to know your fellow male sufferers.

Many attended with their wives/partners and it is important to emphasise that the diagnosis and treatment affects the whole family and the daily sharing of experiences makes the process easier to get through. In the end the knowledge that your body is free of any cancers is a very fulfilling experience.