First of all, you never think it will happen to you. Secondly, if it does, you never think you’ll be the one to miss the warning signs. Well, both of these things happened to me, so as we get deeper into Movember – the annual November event that asks men to grow a moustache to raise awareness for prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s mental health issues – it seems a good time to share my experience of testicular cancer. I was exceptionally lucky in that I came through it relatively unscathed – but many, many others are not so fortunate.
“One in nine men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime, and the highest occurrence of testicular cancer in men is 18-34.”
Some of the statistics are shocking. One in nine men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime, and the highest occurrence of testicular cancer in men is 18-34 years. The good news is that if it’s caught early, it’s entirely treatable. But it’s being aware of what to look out for that’s important and getting to the doctor as quick as you can.
With testicular cancer, a three to five second self-check in the shower can literally save your life. Self-check every month, and get checked by a doctor if you find a lump, or suspect anything isn’t right. As men, we generally don’t go to the doctor very often, but if you do find anything that concerns you, GO AND GET IT CHECKED OUT RIGHT AWAY, even if only to experience the relief that it’s a false alarm. If a cancer is found early, you can often get away without having Chemotherapy or more treatment. So please, please, please do not miss the chance of an early diagnosis – because every minute counts.
“As men, we generally don’t go to the doctor very often, but if you do find anything that concerns you GO AND GET IT CHECKED OUT RIGHT AWAY.”
How did I find out? It was the spring of 2015, and for a few consecutive weeks, I was suffering severe back pain. Initially, my doctor thought I had a kidney stone, so I was put on a Voltaren drip, and the pain would subside. After a few weeks of this, I was sent for a CT scan to see if the kidney stone was blocking a tube somewhere. The scan found no kidney stones, but I was asked to go for another scan. I arrived for this second scan, and remember being irritated as they were running late. Fortunately, I swallowed my annoyance, and waited for my scheduled appointment.
The next day, I went to the doctor expecting no more news. He told me I had a tumour. It didn’t really compute with me, but I rang my wife, and it immediately did with her. I went straight back to the doctor’s office, where he started questioning me and ended up examining my testicles. He found the lump I had missed and was delighted. I was a bit surprised at his reaction, but he explained that as a man, if you had a tumour in your testicles, it’s the best place you could get it. There’s a 95% cure rate, and he felt this was a great result. Much to my horror, a couple of nurses were brought in so they could feel what to look for. They agreed they could feel a lump too, and that was it – I was on my cancer journey.
“I had missed the lump in my testicle and it had spread through my lymph nodes to my neck.”
We went home from the doctors, and it was time to make a plan. My wife correctly pushed me for more action, but neither of us really knew what to do. The doctor was going away that night, but my wife insisted we keep making progress, and we ended up speaking with him in the airport as he boarded his flight. The next morning, I went to Mediclinic, and after an ultrasound it was confirmed. A further scan followed and a plan was made. I had missed the lump in my testicle and it had spread through my lymph nodes to my neck.
I was to have my testicle removed for analysis and it was discovered that the cancer was a classic Seminoma – a germ cell tumour that is one of the most treatable and curable cancers, with a survival rate above 95% if discovered in early stages. The night before the operation, an old school friend rang and asked to meet up the following day, and I explained I couldn’t as I was having an operation. I’d completely forgotten he was a doctor, and within 30 minutes, he’d assessed the surgeon operating on me, who he considered to be brilliant, and introduced me to a GP at the Cromwell Hospital in London who was to take charge of the next stages of my treatment.
“Dr. Plowman looked me straight in the eyes and told me he was going to cure me.”
Following the operation, known as an orchiectomy, I flew to London to start the next steps of my treatment at The Cromwell Hospital. I was immediately referred to the renowned Oncology Specialist, Dr. Nick Plowman. He looked me straight in the eyes and told me he was going to cure me. He said it would be a bit of a journey, but a hard programme of chemo should do the trick. He immediately put me at ease. Then all I had to do was prepare myself for chemotherapy.
As a child, one of my favourite films was called Champions. It starred Bob Champion, a British jockey who overcame testicular cancer and went on to win the Grand National. The scenes of children in the cancer wards cheering him on and celebrating the success which gave them such hope had stayed with me forever. And suddenly, I found myself in a similar scenario, having ridden as an amateur jockey when I was younger. I’m still passionate about racing, and while there was no way I was coming back to ride in a race, although I never like to say never, medicine has improved a lot in 35 years. Back in the 80s, when Bob Champion had cancer, if you survived the chemo, you pretty well beat the cancer. I felt inspired by Bob and his bravery, and felt incredibly optimistic.
A rather boring but important aside I need to mention at this stage is the importance of having good health insurance. I was with BUPA, and they never blinked at any stage about the cost of treatment and have remained brilliant ever since. This peace of mind definitely made it easier for me, and we were able to get the best treatment, quickly. Then, before the chemotherapy started, I went to a sperm bank to store a sample. My wife and I had one child, but would have liked to have another, and knowing that chemo can cause infertility, this was an insurance policy I wasn’t willing to overlook. Insurance, as I have discovered, truly is a lifesaver.
Later that week, I went back to the Cromwell Hospital and the treatment started. The first thing they did was give me a general anaesthetic and install a motorized port. This was basically where all the drugs would be pumped into me, and stopped them having to find a vein each time, which gets harder the further you are through treatment. I’d never seen chemotherapy first-hand, and so really didn’t know what to expect. Luckily the MacMillan nurses, an amazing organization completely dedicated to cancer support, explained absolutely everything that was going to happen, which made it so much easier to process.
It started the next morning. I was to have four rounds of BEP, which, for the record, is B – bleomycin, E – etoposide and P – cisplatin (platinum). I spent two-and-a-half days being pumped full of these drugs along with saline solution to ensure I was well hydrated and my kidneys wouldn’t be damaged. I had to measure the amount of urine I passed every day – and if there wasn’t enough, I had to take a pee pill. I was on a three-week chemotherapy cycle; Day 1 to 3, it was constant chemo for up to 7 hours a day, with a top-up on day 8 and day 15. Then it would start again.
The first round of chemo was relatively gentle, but soon my hair started falling out. When this happens, you feel self-conscious because you think everyone now knows you have cancer. As I went through cycles 2 and 3, I progressively became more exhausted, and was given anti-nausea pills which helped with the constant feeling I was going to throw up.
One upside to being in London for treatment was that I reconnected with many old friends who came and sat with me during chemo, and gifted me with what became a very fine hat collection. The hospital hours were fairly long and I would go for a walk every night around the hospital. I enjoyed watching full sessions of the Ashes cricket and that helped pass the time. Because there was a lot of time to pass. Between rounds, I really wanted to escape and just get on with real life, so I spent 10 days of the cycle back in Dubai working, often having interim rounds of Bleomycin in City Hospital. It generally took my mind off it. By the fourth round I was back in London and pretty exhausted, so you can imagine my relief when it all took less than two hours to complete. I was watching the Test Match at Trent Bridge, where Stuart Broad ripped through the Australian top order. My brother was with me, and we were enjoying it so much, we stayed until lunchtime.
“After five years, I think one officially ends remission, and you can label yourself with pride as a cancer survivor.”
This was all five years ago now, and I am still regularly scanned, checked and screened and continue to do so. After five years, I think one officially ends remission, and you can label yourself with pride as a cancer survivor. When I go for my scans, a little part of me always worries. But Dr. Plowman is still in charge, and while he is, I have total confidence in him. After all, he promised me he would cure me.
In terms of side effects, I’m lucky to not have many – although I know that many fellow survivors do. I did have Deep Vein Thrombosis, which can be a side effect of the chemo, and I spent another night in hospital being injected with warfarin which quickly helped the problem to subside. DVT can be fatal, so it’s really important to keep an eye out for this – especially since flying is something most Dubai residents regularly do, and DVT is often suffered by frequent flyers.
I was always fairly relaxed as we went through the whole chemo process, but I appreciate it was not easy for those around me. My wife, Laetitia, and all my family supported me strongly and kept me going. There were times I couldn’t see our first son Charlie, because I was too radioactive. He didn’t care of course that I had no hair, and was always smiling, which meant so much, and kept me focused. Everyone helped me to get through my cancer – from family to friends to the doctors and nurses who worked tirelessly doing all they could for me. Happily, the second insurance policy we took out was one of the best decisions we ever made – and my wife and I had another wonderful son, who we named Eddie.
The BBC has just aired an excellent programme in the UK featuring Love Island star, Chris Hughes, and his brother, who is undergoing treatment for testicular cancer at present. This disease touches so many lives, and does not care if you are famous, a jockey or just a property agent in Dubai. Please get a check today. It could save your life, like it did mine.’
This November, Mediclinic is offering special health packages for men with a 50% discount on a customised range of tests for under and over their 40s, as well as a consultation with a urologist. You can find out more on their website.