'Penile cancer drove me to the lowest place I have ever been'
When Jim Ryan had to have radical surgery due to a male-specific cancer, he became profoundly depressed. But, he says, with the help of family, friends, and two guards, he has now come to terms with things
Jim Ryan has suffered such a traumatic health problem, that certain individuals cautioned him against talking about it publicly. But he was having none of that. "Other men need to know I went through this, and that I came out the other end smiling," he says vehemently, his blue eyes twinkling.
Jim is direct, outspoken and courageous. Which is just as well, given his recent experiences. Having grown up in Cork with four brothers and three sisters, he worked in the painting trade. "That's all I ever did," he says, while volunteering that he really enjoyed the work.
And though he married and had two children, the relationship - which started out well - failed, because, by Jim's own admission, he had a serious drinking problem. "By the age of 38, my drinking was out of control," he admits. "In January 1999, the judge gave me three days to leave the house; my wife and I split up, and I ended up renting a room." Subsequently, Jim stopped drinking, thanks to his own determination and the support he got from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). "That's the best thing I ever did," he says.
Fortunately, he did get a second chance, when he met Anne Corbett, his current partner. However, in June last year, things again took a turn for the worse, when Jim found a lump in his penis. He was slow to mention it to Anne, but once he did, she insisted he see a doctor as soon as possible. The GP then referred Jim to Mercy University Hospital in Cork. Having spent a number of hours in A&E, he was then admitted to the hospital. "I called Anne to tell her what had happened," he says. "She was very shocked."
In August, a biopsy and a circumcision were done. Jim says he was in a great deal of pain following the procedure, and spent two weeks in hospital. Shortly after, he returned to see a consultant urologist, who had to break the devastating news that Jim had penile cancer. "As a man, I'd heard of testicular and prostate cancer, but I'd never heard of this," he says. "The consultant told me I was the 10th person in Co Cork, and the 26th person in Ireland, to get a diagnosis like this in the past year." Jim was told he needed to have part of his penis removed. He was absolutely distraught.
"When I got into the lift of the hospital, I was crying," he remembers. "I walked through the streets of Cork. I wasn't too concerned about myself, but I was really worried about how I was going to tell Anne, who had already lost a husband. When I did tell her, she just hugged me; then she asked me what my chances were. When I told her about 80pc, she said that was great, because her late husband hadn't been so lucky."
Last year, at the end of September, Jim had his penis amputated. He says he hadn't anticipated that the entire organ would be removed, but medically, there was no alternative. "I got such a shock; I nearly collapsed when I saw the stump," he says. As a consequence, he was forced to sit down when urinating, and that in turn, caused him to feel alienated from his own sexuality. He soon sank into a very deep depression. "I felt like a woman," he admits candidly. By now Jim was home, and about to celebrate his birthday with his family, but he was clearly in no mood for a party.
So he walked out of his house, having left his phone with Anne, and made his way to the River Lee in the centre of the city. "I stood there for an hour and a half, thinking of suicide," he says. "That was the lowest place I have ever been. I also thought about Anne, and my kids and my brothers and sisters."
Then, ironically, Jim needed to urinate, so he went in search of a toilet, and along the way, he encountered a Garda car. Fortunately, the car's alert occupants noticed that something was wrong with him. "They looked at me and asked me if I was OK," says Jim. "I said, 'No, I'm suicidal'. One was called Stephen [from the Bridewell Garda station], and there was another guard called John. They asked me if I wanted to go to hospital, but I said, 'No, take me to Anne's house.' When we got there, the guards told her what had happened. Stephen rang me a few days later with a number for Arc House, a cancer support centre. Those guards saved my life; I can't thank them enough for that."
Fortunately, Jim got very good advice on ways to manage his low moods from a counsellor at Arc House. "The depression would hit me quite badly when I went to the toilet, or when I found myself sleeping alone in my own house at night," he explains. "I was told to get out of bed and go make a cup of tea, instead of dwelling on things. And if I was alone, I could scream and shout, out loud, that this was not going to beat me. I was told to think of my partner, my kids and my family, and to breathe deeply. They said the low part of the depressive episode would be over in about 10 minutes. And they were right."
Shortly after his surgery, Jim had the lymph nodes in his groin removed to "be on the safe side", but he didn't need chemo or radiotherapy. He explains that he will have to wear compression stockings for the rest of his life, to avoid swelling, following the removal of the lymph nodes.
Right now Jim, who is known in football circles in Cork as 'Moses', is in great shape. At the time of this interview he had just been given the all-clear, and was told he would only need check-ups every six months.
Nonetheless, in many ways he is still reeling from what happened to him, but he is now able to get things into better perspective. He finds that talking openly about his experience helps to a great extent. "I'm doing this interview for a reason," he says. "There's no ego involved here, but if I can save just one man's life, by speaking openly about what happened to me, then it will have been worth it."
Jim is happy to assist campaigns such as Blue September, and initiatives such as the Men's Cancer Alliance, which aim to create awareness about men's cancers and treatments. And following his ordeal and subsequent recovery, he will never forget the wonderful support he got from Anne, his children and from their extended families. "They were unbelievable," he says.
Right now, Jim is looking into the possibility of penile reconstruction. "The sex side has affected me," he says with great candour. "After all, I'm 54, not 74."
For more information on Arc cancer support centres and groups, see arccancersupport.ie or corkcancersupport.ie
For information on the many ways that men can take better care of their health,