The teams who led ‘Times’ man through prostate cancer

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It was the sort of diagnosis nobody wants to hear – the bone-chilling word ‘cancer’ was included.

Thankfully, my prostate cancer was spotted early and expertly by my GP who set in train the journey that ended in success at the end of November - six months of dedication by the NHS teams to whom I will be eternally grateful.

The succession of professionals led from Portadown Health Centre, to Craigavon Area Hospital, to the Belfast’s City Hospital. People who not only know their vital trade, but who encourage, care, and thankfully invariably cure this genre of the dreaded disease. And the fact that I was determined from the start to follow every instruction (for once!) and place myself in their hands completely, augmented the pathway to success.

So, too, did the unstinted backing of my wife and family, of dear friends who travelled up and down for many of the 37 daily visits to The City via NI Railways. It culminated in the welcome “all-clear” from the consultant on the penultimate Monday in November, and the final radiotherapy treatment on the Wednesday. You bite your bottom lip and blink away the tears when that sort wonderful news is related.

It’s then that you realise just how worried you were, how much you were helped by truly wonderful people. And it’s back to the Portadown Times word factory, where colleagues were terrific throughout.

Even the railway company helped keep me on track! Staff at Portadown Train Station soon sussed the particular daily journey I was on, and when Day 37 of my radiotherapy finally dawned, they rejoiced with me that all was well and that the trauma had ended. (And in the 74 free two-way trips, courtesy of my pensioner’s pass, the train was late just once! And by a paltry 10 minutes.)

Of course, it helped that Portadown station is a seven minute drive from my home and that the City Hospital halt is a seven-minute walk from the cancer centre – even at my dead-slow-and-stop pace! I parked each day at Magowan Buildings. One rainy day I collected a parking ticket in the process - unfairly, as I reported earlier, and readers will be delighted to know it was waived. But not without a rather sharp letter. But who cares in the circumstances!

Statistics show a 90 per cent-plus success rate, if prostate cancer is caught early. It was explained to me at Craigavon that the main worry is that the cancer could “escape” the prostate, with the danger of bowel or bone cancer. That was the truly worrying part.

The consultant explained that my PSA (Prostate-specific antigen) measurement was 12, which is intermediate. He went on to suggest four alternative treatments. But I said he must decide! “I know nothing about it,” I added, and he seemed to appreciate the level of trust.

So, 37 daily sessions of ‘radio’ it was, in preference to surgery. The travelling up and down was tiring for this septuagenarian, but vital. When your very life is at stake… The mantra is to do exactly as you’re told.

I didn’t read much about it, and left it to the professionals, although my wife (retired nurse) devoured the information leaflets. My attitude was rather head-in-the-sand, as there wasn’t much I could do about it. Just as it was, back in 2006, with my quadruple by-pass! Leave it to those who know.

Before long, a bone scan at Craigavon, followed by an MRI, deduced that the ‘Big C’ was safely contained within the prostate. Great news! The 37 daily sessions at The City were organised and duly carried out.

In the meantime, I had a long talk with a retired politician who’d been through the mill, and he assured me the radiotherapy was painless and the best option. There are a few side-effects which manifest themselves differently to different people, although I escaped without anything too serious. Each person reacts differently. I’m no expert. A case of taking your medicine and getting on with it and enduring the minor drawbacks.

Suffice to say you have to report to City HQ an hour before the appointed treatment time and ensure a full bladder and an empty bowel. I’ll draw a veil over that. But all that is all explained beforehand.

And the consultant’s radiotherapy decision (rather than removing the prostate which can cause complications) proved the right one. Somehow, lying inert for about five or six minutes under and giant, groaning, buzzing machine (with dignity left at the door) became second nature, and the back-up care of doctors and specialists was so professional and reassuring.

Every weekday over the period, the therapy continued. They made three pin-point marks at the base of the abdomen and that’s where the radiotherapy penetrated, although I just lay under the fearsome-looking machine (usually number 1 of the eight ‘monsters’) following instructions.

And here I must pay tribute to the wonderful teams of therapists. They were so positive, encouraging and jolly – they almost made the sessions a pleasure, except perhaps the last when they were running late and I had to hang on courageously for half-an-hour with bladder feeling the strain! But we made it…

My eternal thanks to them all.

I’ll be on medication until the day after Christmas, and after that, there’s a monitoring timetable. But all’s well that ends well.