Prostate cancer: 'Men are still afraid of going to the doctor in case they hear something they don't want to know'
As Gay Byrne reveals his own prostate cancer fears, Celine Naughton talks to men who've battled the disease on why getting tested is vital for men of all ages
Legendary broadcaster Gay Byrne revealed his prostate cancer fears Sunday, after announcing on his Lyric FM radio show that he wouldn't be on air next week, due to a hospital appointment. The 82-year-old explained: "I shall not be with our listeners on this day next week. Have to go to hospital this week... They think they may have discovered a bit of cancer in the prostate and they think it may have moved up into my back."
It's three years since Gay sympathised with his long-time friend Michael Parkinson who was then diagnosed with the disease - and has since been given the all-clear. If Gay never expected then that a few short years later, he'd be facing the same journey as his former colleague, he's doing so now with his usual composure.
"I've had the most wonderful, fantastic, robust, good health all my broadcasting life," he said Sunday. "It's my turn now ... Many, many people much worse off. Thank you for your good wishes."
Each year in Ireland, 3,400 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. The outlook for those detected early has never been better, thanks to improved screening, detection and treatment of the disease. Compared with 40 years ago, when only one in three Irish men survived the disease beyond five years, today that five-year survival rate has soared to nine in 10.
Michael Gainey (below) from Newbridge, Co Kildare, had no symptoms when his prostate cancer was diagnosed two years ago, shortly after his 60th birthday.
"I'd never been sick in my life, but in my late 50s, I got into the habit of going for a health check every year," he says. "It was one of those routine checks that showed my PSA levels were slightly raised. The doctor assured me it was probably nothing, but just in case, he sent me for a biopsy. That 'just in case' decision saved my life.
"The biopsy showed disease in five out of six samples in one of the lobes. It was so unexpected, I was shocked. I had it removed and was relieved that it hadn't spread to other organs, so I didn't need any further treatment," says Michael.
Until then, Michael had been unaware that his father's death in 1989 was as a result of prostate cancer.
"I knew he'd had cancer, but I didn't know it started in the prostate," he says. "Those were different times. My father was part of a generation of Irish men that didn't go to the doctor, and didn't talk about what was wrong with them.
"By the time Dad went, it was stage 4 and there was nothing they could do for him. He lived for three years, and in all that time, cancer wasn't mentioned.
"Immediately I was diagnosed, I called my brother in the States and urged him to have the PSA test. He did, and lo and behold, he also had prostate cancer. His had spread slightly, so he needed a course of radiotherapy as well as surgery, but he's fine now," Michael says.
"Prostate cancer is very prevalent, but if you catch it early, it's eminently treatable. What does an annual health check cost - €50 or €60? Believe me, it's well worth it."
Men who ignore this important little gland do so at their peril. Yet a Prostate Cancer UK study showed that nine out of 10 men had no idea what the prostate does. The prostate is a walnut-sized gland located between the bladder and the penis. Its main function is to secrete fluid that nourishes and protects sperm.
Early prostate cancer doesn't usually cause any symptoms. It's only when it's grown large enough to press on the bladder, causing urinary problems, that some men seek help. That's what prompted Mick Heffernan (below) from Bray, Co Wicklow, to seek help.
At first he was diagnosed with an overactive bladder, but after treatment, his PSA levels were still high. A scan and biopsy confirmed prostate cancer, and he underwent surgery 18 months ago.
"Thank goodness it was caught early and was contained within the prostate," says the 66-year-old. "I want to get the message across to other men to be diligent about their health. If you're peeing more than usual, don't just put it down to age," says Mick.
"Men are still afraid of going to the doctor in case they hear something they don't want to know. They go into denial and put it off till next month, or the month after.
"I'm over a year clear of disease and I've never felt better. Guys, if you have symptoms, don't ignore them. Don't leave it too late."
Prostate cancer: Not just an older man's disease
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among Irish men, making up almost a third of all male cancers. The risk increases with age, especially after the age of 50, and if you have a father or brother who had the disease, or are of African or Caribbean descent, your chances of getting it are considerably higher.
However, men are advised not to dismiss it as an older man's disease. Only weeks ago, comic actor Ben Stiller revealed he was treated for prostate cancer in 2014, at the age of 48.
"Taking the PSA test saved my life," he wrote on his blog last month. "Literally. That's why I am writing this now."
He was tested for PSA over an 18-month period, from the age of 46.
"I have no history of prostate cancer in my family and I am not in the high-risk group... I had no symptoms. What I had was a thoughtful internist who felt like I was around the age to start checking my PSA level, and discussed it with me.
"If he had waited, as the American Cancer Society recommends, until I was 50, I would not have known I had a growing tumour until two years after I got treated."
Speaking on the 'Howard Stern Show', Stiller, now 50, said he urges younger men to be checked for the illness.
"In this imperfect world, I believe the best way to determine a course of action for the most treatable, yet deadly cancer, is to detect it early."
- Celine Naughton