Gus Barry got the shock of his life when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but after making a full recovery he never tires of reiterating his message to other men to get checked out
Retired grandfather-of-five Gus Barry can still recall the day his doctor delivered the news that would change his life.
“When the specialist turned around and said to me, ‘there is no easy way of telling you this Gus - you have cancer’, and I nearly fell off the chair,” the Poyntzpass man reveals.
“It was like being hit by a sledgehammer at 53 years old. I thought I was never going to live to see my daughter Ciara get married, never walk her up the aisle, do all the things that fathers look forward to doing. Things like that went through my mind.”
But thankfully, Gus, now 64, came through the other side - he underwent an operation known as a radical prostatectomy, which removed his prostate gland, where his cancer was.
And over 10 years later, he is happy and healthy, and fiercely determined to do his bit for the charities and hospitals that helped him, by urging men all over the country to seek medical advice if they are secretly fearful that they too may have prostate cancer.
Action cancer say that this form of cancer is the most common kind in men, with over a thousand diagnosed in Northern Ireland alone each year, 244 of whom will lose their life to the disease.
Gus himself admits that cancer “wasn’t on his radar at all”, even though his brother had died from the disease at the age of 50.
“It’s not something you think about,” says the retired father-of-two, who is married to Jillian, a nurse. In fact, it was due to his wife’s persistence that Gus actually sought medical advice in the first place.
“I had noticed a decreased flow in my urine, and so went along to the Well Man Clinic which was run at that time by Action Cancer. They discovered that I had an elevated PSA (prostate-specific antigen), which is a marker or indicator that there may be something wrong with your prostate gland.
“So they took me back three months later and it still hadn’t gone down. It was a nurse called Jenny Kelly who sent me to City Hospital for a biopsy - I owe my life to her. I got the shock of my life when they said it was cancer.”
Gus says that not only did he then have to come to terms with the fact that he was ill, but he was worried about his family and their concerns, particularly his daughter Ciara (now 33), whom he says would lie in bed at night sobbing, so terrified was she that her dad might die.
“It was very distressing,” he says. But Gus refused to let fear take over his mind, and he decided that a positive approach to his situation was the only course of action.
He told himself that he was going to beat cancer and get better, and the operation to remove his prostate gland was scheduled for early 2005.
“I decided I wouldn’t sweep it under the carpet, that I would tell my neighbours, which I did, and my brothers and sisters,” Gus continues.
“I was going to face it and get over it. I had the operation and was home again in four days.”
Gus soon learned that he needed no further treatment, other than regular follow-up appointments to ensure the cancer hadn’t returned. Mercifully, neither chemotherapy or radiotherapy were required.
But the whole experience changed his life in other ways - it made him grateful to be alive, and he sees things very differently now.
“I took early retirement - I had been an instructor in a job training programme and it was quite stressful, so on the advice of the doctors I decided to give myself every chance to get better.
“The recovery itself I found to be more of a mental thing - you have to be very strong mentally and refuse to allow yourself to get down. It’s very easy to get depressed and think, ‘why me?’, and feel sorry for yourself. But you don’t want to go down that road. And so I decided that if I got better, I was going to help other men become more aware of prostate cancer.
“Men need to become less inhibited about problems like this and not die of embarrassment. The PSA test is nothing to be afraid of.”
Gus also works with cancer charities, writing articles and so on, and indeed, he says he makes sure that he does “something for prostate cancer every day, no matter how big or small.”
He believes having cancer has given him renewed perspective.
“I don’t care if it’s raining or not, at least I’m alive. I had a sister who died in her sleep three weeks ago - she was the baby of the family. Now that’s trouble.
“Things like this change your outlook and bring you down to brass tacks, so to speak. Now I’m just looking forward to enjoying my life with my grandchildren.”
Men in Northern Ireland who are over the age of 16 can avail of a free MOT test provided by Action Cancer House in Belfast and on board the Big Bus, which travels to over 225 locations throughout Northern Ireland every year.
If you would like a PSA test, you are advised to go to your GP immediately.
Action Cancer health promotion officer Malachy Nixon explains more: “The health checks incorporate a number of assessments including blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, facial skin analysis, peak flow measurements and body composition analysis, as well as lifestyle advice and information on testicular and prostate cancers. The checks do not diagnose cancer but aim to increase awareness of current health and the importance of early detection.”
The charity also offers free counselling and complementary therapy to assist not only those diagnosed with cancer but also family members, friends and carers.
Book a health check or an appointment at www.actioncancer.org or 028 9080 3344.