As International Men’s Health Week (MHW) 14-20 June 2021 approaches, Action Cancer hopes to raise awareness in all men, not only about male-specific cancers but general health and wellbeing. John O’Kane shares his cancer journey.
My name is John O’Kane. I live and work in Derry as an engineer. My interests include agriculture, walking, reading and listening to music. I always considered myself (and still do) to be a healthy person who loves the great outdoors. We have a small farm which enables me to get out and about to enjoy all our countryside has to offer.
In the autumn of 2020, in my fortieth year, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In the midst of a year of a global pandemic, I was faced with my own Everest to climb. The journey most noticeably began in September, when I first experienced occasional bouts of pain and a general discomfort especially whilst sitting. My day job involves half my working time in front of a computer screen, so it was difficult to avoid sitting. I initially deemed these pains to be unpleasant but insignificant, and they were subsequently dismissed as “something and nothing”, however with self-examination and more frequent and pronounced recurrence of the pain, I informed my family that something was amiss and they rightly ordered me to consult with our GP. To be honest, I was beginning to worry myself, so they got no argument from me and I promptly made an appointment.
An examination by the doctor on a Wednesday afternoon, led to a referral to Omagh Hospital the next day for an ultrasound scan by way of a precautionary measure. At this juncture, I was confident that the doctors were just being super cautious. I was fit and healthy and led an active lifestyle so I assumed that a reasonably simple conclusion would be reached and that a prescribed medicine would be the remedy. Sometimes ignorance can be bliss!
A telephone call later in the afternoon on the same day as the scan revealed that there was an anomaly that would necessitate an urgent referral to an urologist for further consultation. This didn’t sound good, especially with the urgency that was expressed, however, I decided to remain optimistic in the face of any impending potential for a diagnosis to be of the worst kind. Fast forward by three weeks and I met with the consultant at the Roe Valley Hospital in Limavady. He instantly confirmed my worst fears that the scan revealed that I had a testicular tumour.
I experienced a whole raft of emotions. Initially, I was shocked that this was my story – it felt completely surreal. I felt anger at myself for perhaps not discovering the tumour earlier and not acting quicker. This then morphed into a sense of self-pity and then thoughts of my mortality. I was anxious and stressed, with feelings of nausea, as I was embarking on a journey that I never dreamt I’d be on. I thought “why me?”, but then, on reflection, why wouldn’t it happen to me? The statistics tell us that around 1 in 2 of us will be affected by cancer at some stage in our lives. I suppose looking back and writing this account, it sounds somewhat dramatic but this was the reality I faced.
With only an ultrasound scan so far, the nature of the tumour was unknown – but these facts would be established post-surgery by means of histology whereby the medical teams can determine if the tumour is malignant, and if so, how aggressive it is. My case was red-flagged for surgery, and the consultant reassured me that I had caught it early and therefore it was very treatable with every chance of a full recovery. Even with these words of encouragement, such a diagnosis will always strike fear into us and remind us that we are in no way invincible.
The occasional pain that I had experienced prior to this soon became a dull and aching presence that never subsided; however, I could still go about my daily routine. A week after my consultation at Roe Valley, I found myself in Altnagelvin Hospital for an orchidectomy – this was a mere seven weeks after my first inklings that something wasn’t right. I deemed this to be fast and so did many others. Furthermore, on the day before surgery, I could sense that the tumour had enlarged further since my earliest discovery, and indeed it felt somewhat denser as well. From the outset, its detection was not immediately obvious, as the tumour did not feature as a surface lump that was immediately visible, but as a mass within the testis, and so this is how such growths can go unnoticed for some time.
As we were in the depths of the pandemic, hospital visits were not permitted, so I had to walk the walk on my own. I had thankfully never lay in a hospital bed in my life up to that point, (and with no disrespect to the wonderful medical teams, I hope that I never will again!) The surgery was swift and declared to be uneventful, and I returned home after a two-day stay in hospital. I felt a sense of relief, not just that the surgery was over, but I somehow felt cleansed of this growth that had invaded my body.
My next mental hurdle was the prospect of discovering that cancerous cells may have spread to other parts of my body. A CT scan was carried out four days after my surgery at the North-West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital. Following this, I returned home to continue to recover from the surgery and wait for the results of the scan. Needless to say, this was an anxious wait, but in the midst of this, my faith in God was nonetheless steadfast and give me inner strength.
Nine days later and the surgical doctor called to confirm that the tumour was indeed 100% cancer, but that it was localised and had not spread to any other organs. The fact that there was no spread was akin to winning the lottery for me. I was so relieved and so were my mother and sister, who were by my side throughout this entire journey and experienced the rollercoaster of emotions every bit as much as I did.
Following on from this, before Christmas I was scheduled to attend an appointment at the Cancer Centre at the Belfast City Hospital to discuss follow-up treatment. The doctors gave me a full report of the findings of the previous CT scan and tumour analysis. Due to the size of the tumour and slight encroachment of the growth into the lymphatic vessels of the testis, they recommended that chemotherapy treatment would be an appropriate measure in order to mop up any cancerous cells elsewhere that may have gone undetected by the CT scan. Needless to say, I was more than content to adhere to their recommendations and so following yet more tests at both the Belfast City Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital, I was prepared for a cycle of chemotherapy in January of this year.
Post-treatment, I experienced the typical side effects of chemotherapy including sickness, low energy levels, low immunity and fatigue. Tumour marker blood testing carried out since have revealed that I am in active recovery, and life is progressively returning to normal. The Cancer Centre will continue to monitor me over the next five years in an effort to detect any possible recurrence.
So, I survived and I suppose you could say that this journey has given me a sense of renewal and has certainly changed my perspective. The small things that would have previously troubled me now wane into insignificance, and I found myself beginning to evaluate my life, and count my many blessings.
I owe a debt of gratitude, not only for the support of my own family, friends and work colleagues, but also to the countless medical professionals at the various hospitals I attended as well as my own GP practice, who were of the highest calibre in terms of their professionalism, and were found to be wholly kind, caring and compassionate. Furthermore, I was afforded a holistic treatment service by way of complementary therapies, counselling and workshops run by Action Cancer as well as the various trusts in association with Macmillan Cancer Support. Most noteworthy among these was the support provided by a counsellor called Donna from Action Cancer, who leant me a listening ear and was able to validate the range of emotions and feelings that were evoked throughout this cancer journey.
This month Action Cancer is hoping to raise awareness in all men, not only about male-specific cancers but general health and wellbeing. My story has a good ending but as with many health issues, the effectiveness of treatments and the probability of a full recovery is dependent on early detection and diagnosis. My message to anyone with any health concerns is not to dismiss it. If there is the slightest suspicion of any abnormality or you are generally feeling unwell and can’t explain it, regardless of how apparently insignificant, a trip to the doctor for a check-up is easily arranged. It may seem like an inconvenience at the time, but in my case, cancer was fairly inconvenient and I had to deal with it. Your doctor will only be too happy to deliver good news to you if any concerns you have are unfounded.
Each and every man is a precious husband, grandfather, father, brother, uncle or son, with responsibilities, a role to play and a life purpose. In terms of our health, self-neglect only serves to expose us to an increased risk of a difficult journey, an unpleasant outcome, and at worst, a potentially avoidable terminal diagnosis – and no one wants this for themselves nor for their families, who are left behind to pick up the pieces should this become a reality.
To book an MOT health check visit: https://appointments.actioncancer.org/