Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

'A macho attitude won't help' - mixed crop farmer on testicular cancer diagnosis

Julian and Valerie Hughes and their baby Robyn on the farm in Kells, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Julian and Valerie Hughes and their baby Robyn on the farm in Kells, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Cancer is a scary word but when "testicular" lands in front of it, some men find it even harder to accept.

Instead of acknowledging the lump found in the shower and talking to someone, anyone, about it, some will ignore it and hope it all just goes away. Others demonstrate an innately macho, almost stubborn, attitude against going to the local clinic and asking a doctor to inspect their private area.

But the truth is, problems manifest in silence.

Julian Hughes, a mixed crop farmer from Kilkenny, is not one of these men. Last May, the 32-year-old noticed that something "didn't feel quite right". At first he thought it might have been caused by an awkward knock playing rugby but after three weeks without change, Julian took action. He has never looked back. He recently got the six-month "all clear" and describes the rewards of early detection as "exponential".

"I went to the doctor on a Thursday, got a scan on Monday and hadn't even arrived home by the time my doctor called and said there is something here that warrants further investigation," he said.

Despite this extremely difficult blow, Julian's determination to beat the illness suddenly kicked into overdrive when he found out his wife, Valerie, was pregnant with their first child.

"On the morning the doctor said I had cancer we didn't know that Val was pregnant but I just had a feeling that she was. I remember going down to the farm and looking around and saying I really want to be here when my child is born to show them around the place," Julian told the Farming Independent.

Ten days later he underwent an operation to remove the cancerous lump. But he wasn't out of the woods yet. "They removed the cancerous testicle but found it had jumped up my body so there was a lymph-node, cancerous in its appearance, around my spine behind the two main arteries to my heart, in a very difficult spot," he said.

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Julian discussed his options with his "straight talking" oncologist, Dr Ray McDermott.

"I told him if he has any inclination that it might be worthwhile going after this full belt, I'd prefer if he took that approach. I didn't see the point in standing back, waiting and watching for months wondering if it is going to get better or worse," he said.

Julian did four cycles of chemotherapy - each three weeks in duration. Within that he had five very intensive days on a pump 24 hours a day, with a couple of days off.

"If I wasn't getting pumped with chemo for 17 hours I was getting pumped with saline water. They don't mess around. The first week doesn't really hammer you, second week it's starting to get into you, third week you start going down, fourth week you're under pressure," he said, adding that his pregnant wife and his mother, Geraldine, were constant sources of strength.

"The ones you think will wilt, stand up the most. I was worried for my mother but she went into fighter mode. My wife made it very easy. She'd come in and I'd have turned a yellowy green colour - which isn't a pleasant thing - so having her around made a huge difference. She was under huge stress, while at the same time dealing with the early stages of pregnancy and being wiped out - she's a powerful woman," he said.

Despite some dark days, Julian continued to work as much as he could, sending emails from his hospital bed and remaining active on his 400ac enterprise in Kells where he grows a mixture of cereals, carrots, parsnips, daffodils and other speciality vegetables.

"I worked pretty much all the way through. In the latter stages it became more difficult but life went on normally in my head. We were starting a new venture in vegetable packing. When I think back now, I would've been walking around the yard looking sick, sweating and quite puffy. It must have been very strange for people," he said.

Despite his passion for farming, he says conveyor belts and packers didn't offer holistic healing. However, he found solace among a herd of heifers. "We do a bit of grass B&B where we bring in heifers for the summer and manage them. I found it really relaxing walking stock," he said.

Although Julian got the all-clear in January, just days before his bouncing baby girl Robyn was born, the relief truly hit home in recent weeks when he received a second clean bill of heath.

He urges all men, particularly farmers, to speak out if they notice something unusual. "You must be pragmatic. Early detection means the odds are probably in your favour. If I had been checked out even earlier there's a good chance I wouldn't have needed chemo, that's reasonably common," he said.

Being macho will get you nowhere.

"You can do it the easy way or hard way. If you want to leave it until you've a serious problem, you can and there's a good chance you may not come out the other side. Or you can just deal with it sharply and quickly. It only costs ¤50 to see a doctor, it's nothing in the greater scheme of things. If you're lying on the flat of your back on chemo with little hope, nobody will be patting you on the back for being macho then," he said.

Despite some tiredness, he feels himself again. "There's some stigma with testicular cancer for fellas but I've gone through it and it makes absolutely no difference in terms of my future or having more children. I'm no different today to what I was before. Physically, I'm not as symmetrical as I once was but my ability and everything like that is completely unchanged," he said.

Members of the public concerned about cancer can contact the Irish Cancer Society’s Freephone Cancer Nurseline 1800 200 700 to speak with specialist cancer nurses. Further information on testicular cancer and other types of cancer are available on

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