I have supported both Movember and Macmillan for many years, but have never gone beyond raising money. This year I want to change that, and try to raise awareness by sharing my own story. It may not make pleasant reading, but it could save your life.
One day, about 26 years ago, I woke up, scratched my balls and felt something that I hadn’t felt before. A small lump. Maybe.
I didn’t think too much about it. I was 23 years old and hell bent on turning every moment of my life into a party. I’d often woken up with damaged sustained in the name of having a good time. So what was there to worry about about?
It played on my mind. Every day for the next week I checked the lump. I gradually became convinced that it was real. At this stage in my life, I had never heard of testicular cancer. I had no idea that guys were supposed to be alert to changes and didn’t think any of my peers had either. I couldn’t face going to the doctors – it was way too embarrassing. But it was bothering me, and I felt I had to do something.
Eventually I asked my girlfriend to feel my balls. She called me a dirty pervert and told me to fuck off. I explained my concerns and although she clearly didn’t believe me, she obliged. She wasn’t the kind of person to worry, but a few seconds later, with a serious face, she confirmed my suspicions. Her mother had recently had a mastectomy – she knew what she was talking about and I agreed to see the doctor.
It was probably a week before I got to see my GP. He thought I had a cyst and told me not to worry, but sent me for an ultrasound scan to confirm his diagnosis. A week later I had the ultrasound results. The report said it was likely to be a cyst, but they sent me for a biopsy to confirm. A few weeks after that I arrived at hospital for the biopsy, more concerned with having an anaesthetic and surgery than any thoughts of cancer.
The night before I had my biopsy a young doctor sat on my bed and asked me to sign a consent form. He explained that it was likely to be testicular cancer (not a cyst like I’d been told) and that they would need to remove my testicle if this was the case. I felt the world grind to a halt around me and sheer panic rising up as everything went into slow motion. I could hardly speak. I couldn’t think. I was panicking. This was the first time I had heard the world Cancer mentioned, and I knew what happened to people with cancer.
I was awake all that night and first into surgery early the next morning. By 9am I was coming around in the recovery room. “How many balls have I got?” was pretty much the first thing I said to the first person I saw. “Just the one now love” and a squeeze of my hand told me everything I needed to know.
I hobbled out of hospital the next day with more questions than answers. They didn’t think the cancer had spread (I didn’t know it could) and I needed to report to Velindre hospital (a cancer care specialist) a few weeks later.
It was at Velindre that I began to piece things together. These were the days before the internet and information was scarce. I found out that testicular cancer was one of the commonest forms in young males and was also among the most curable. I also learned that it could spread and that for the next 12 months they would scan my body every four weeks for signs of the disease.
The staff at Velindre were amazing. There were many very sick people around and everyone was looked after with love, care and compassion. I got used to visiting and felt like I was seeing friends rather than being checked for a life threatening illness.
Six months later I got a call asking me to go back in a few days after my last scan. It was December 23rd – the day of the office Christmas party. I left the festive party buildup, got on my motorbike and rode through the rain to the hospital.
It was over quickly. The facts were simple. A secondary tumour, a teratoma had appeared in my lungs. They wanted to start chemotherapy on New Year’s Day, it would probably make me sterile, I had a good chance of surviving but there were no guarantees. I just felt numb.
I got back on my bike and onto the road, accelerating through the lights, through each junction. 60…70…80 in a 40 zone. I just didn’t care what happened to me. It felt like my life was over before it had begun. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to.
Some semblance of common sense kicked in and I pulled over onto the side of the road, and sat on the edge of the pavement and cried.
I went to the pub and got drunk, and stayed that way until New Year’s Day arrived.
I was in a shocking state to start chemo…
When I arrived in hospital on New Year’s Day I was scared, but too hungover to admit it. I knew I was going to be sick, I knew I was going to feel like shit but I didn’t know just how bad that would be.
I had my own room and was thankful for the privacy. Everyone was amazing and made me feel as comfortable as I could possibly be. Then, the part I came to hate more than anything else, the long needle inserted into my hand, taped up and left for the rest of the week. Even now, the thought of this makes me wretch. I’m not scared of needles. It wasn’t the pain or the discomfort of the process. It made me feel trapped. I had to eat with it, sleep with it…
Shortly after that a nurse came in pushing a standard hospital drip. Wearing goggles and gloves to protect herself, she attached a large, clear plastic bag filled with liquid and connected it to the the needle in my arm. It was around 5pm on New Year’s Day and chemotherapy had begun.
Instantly I felt a strange cold sensation my veins, creeping up to my shoulder and around my body. Then a bitter metallic taste in my mouth. Something I remember to this day, and something that brings those memories flooding back. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, just weird.
It’s hard to remember, but it was probably an hour later when the nausea hit me. It came out of nowhere, and before I really had a chance to think about it I was being violently sick.There seemed to be no end to it, I just couldn’t stop retching. Eventually I called for a nurse because i couldn’t believe this was normal. I was scared. Really scared.
The nurse was comforting but direct and confirmed the sickness was as expected.
She came back a few minutes later with a magic tablet. The best anti-sickness drug they had. The problem? It was also the most expensive and they could only give me one to get me through the worst of the nausea. Did I want it now?
I did, but my body did not. In some cruel twist of fate the magic tablet resurfaced into a hospital issue carboard sick bowl, swimming around in a pool of bitter, metallic bile. I asked for another tablet, another chance at some sort of redemption from this sickness. There were none, that was it. The only choice I had was to fish the tablet out of my sick and try again or go without. It hardly seemed like a fair choice and bloody minded to the last I elected to go without.
I left hospital three days later having gone without food and been largely reliant on a saline drip for liquid. I felt like shit (and probably looked worse).
And that was the way it went for the next four months. Some weeks were better than others. It was an ongoing process of killing me slowly by filling my body with poison, then nursing me back to health so they could start again. I only hoped the tumor was dying along with me.
There were some great moments – one of my oldest friends took me to America for spring break and whilst my partying credentials were damaged, I felt human and alive for the first time in a long while. Other friends and family rallied around and made sure I had everything I needed and most importantly the hospital staff remained amazing.
What was hard to come by was information about the disease, about my prognosis and what to expect next. The hospital filled in as many blanks as they could, but a lot of questions remained unanswered.
Among other things, I believe the chemotherapy regime has got better over the last 20 years, the drugs refined and the anti sickness treatments improved, and made more accessible. But it’s not a guarantee of survival.
I truly believe I am one of the lucky ones and sound advice and good doctors got me into treatment early. But there are still many, many people out there who are ignorant, or prefer to believe something like this could never happen to them. If by writing this, and supporting Movember I can help change just one person’s life, then it’s all worthwhile. So please share this with as many people as you can and keep on feeling your balls – contrary to what your parents may have told you, it could save your life!
P.S. It didn’t make me sterile, I’ve now got my lovely Finn (13) and Mabelle (10)