Saturday 24 August 2019

Tony Ward: The toughest game of my life - my epic battle with prostate cancer

In his new autobiography Tony Ward describes the gut-wrenching moment he was told he had a very aggressive and advanced tumour

SURVIVOR: Tony Ward is now tackling men’s cancer and is an avid supporter of Blue September
SURVIVOR: Tony Ward is now tackling men’s cancer and is an avid supporter of Blue September Newsdesk Newsdesk

In the early months of 2012, I sensed something was not right. I was still doing my usual travelling and reporting on rugby matches for Independent News and Media. But I felt my body was not functioning as it should.

When I was passing time between games, an alarming thing would happen. If I was walking down the street, I would have to run into the nearest shop or pub to have a pee. I went to see Dr Ray Power in Dublin and he did tests. The first one I was dreading. Although I know it's a common procedure, he probed through my back passage. I knew by the concern on his face all was not well. He had felt a 'hard and jagged edge'.

The next test was for PSA, or Prostate Specific Antigen. He was concerned that my readings were extremely high and he sent them away for analysis. When the results came back, I was immediately sent to see a specialist, Dr Hubert Gallagher.

I braced myself for bad news. Thinking about all the endless possibilities was driving me crazy.

I had not said much to anyone close to me about my visits to the doctors, but now I felt I needed to. I turned to my eldest daughter, Lynn, as she has always been my rock of sensibility. We have a great bond. When I told her everything, she insisted on accompanying me to the test results.

Dr Gallagher - or 'Hubie' as I call him as he is also a longstanding friend and former team-mate - wasted no time. He told me there was a lump developing inside. Then his words: "You have prostate cancer" cut the atmosphere in two.

There was silence in the room. It seemed to last an eternity. I could feel the emotion building in Lynn and see the tears welling.

For my own part, and from God alone knows where, I remained measured and calm. I just recall thinking of my favourite film from my teenage years, Love Story, when Jenny Cavalleri (played by Ali MacGraw) is told she has cancer.

Now I was standing in her shoes. That very moment when the doctor delivered my cancer diagnosis is what I have come to term as 'my Cavalleri moment'.

Going into the clinic that day, I had butterflies in my tummy - the same feelings I had experienced throughout my playing career on big match days. When the referee blew the whistle for kick-off, they vanished.

When Hubie revealed that I had cancer, it bordered on relief to finally know what was wrong. I reached over to console Lynn.

My heart choked a little as I saw the tears she was working so hard to hold back.

I fully understood the enormity of the prognosis. But to me it was just another huge game ahead and, as ever, I would be up for the fight.

His words were emphatic: "Prostate cancer...yours is very is at an advanced stage."

As I lay in bed that night, I thought about how I beat the odds in times past. I thought back to how I confounded people's opinions of me. There were many times, alone with my thoughts, when I asked: 'Why me?'

Dr Hubie described my prostate as being like an orange. As the tumour developed inside my body, the juice seeped through the orange peel. These overflows were cancerous. It was aggressive, but I was lucky in that none of it had spread to my other vital organs.

I had to go for a biopsy. Three years on and even the mere mention of it instils a feeling of pain. I was in such discomfort I could have blasted off the operating theatre and splattered against the ceiling. This was where they did 'live extractions' from my prostate.

When I say 'live', I mean with localised anaesthetic; when I say 'extractions' I mean scraping and inserting sharp devices.

I think they had to insert somewhere in the region of 12 rods into my prostate.

After the third or fourth rod, I became familiar with the rhythm. I knew the routine when the pain was going to hit hardest.

It is something akin to a very strong hand clutching your balls as tight as possible for five to six seconds. As much as you want to scream, there is no let-up. The knocks taken on the rugby pitch and the pain of injuries come nowhere near what I endured in that Easter week.

It seemed like an eternity as they slowly inserted rods into my rear end.

Just think about a very thin metal knitting needle or better still - a gleaming envelope opener.

I looked and felt like death warmed up. My face said it all.

After that, I faced my course of treatment and it seemed all uphill - against the wind. On April 24, I returned for another important procedure.

Dr Alina Mihai, of the Oncology Department of the Beacon, inserted a hormone implant into my upper arm and it was to stay there for three years.

A little bar was implanted under the skin - designed to kill the natural testosterone feeding the tumour.

No matter how resolved you are to beating this ghastly illness, there are times when you want to cry. You feel so helpless.

When your private life is affected, that adds to the angst. As a man, the worst effect of hormone implant is loss of libido. It is an attack on your maleness and dignity.

Three months after the initial implant at the Mater Cancer Centre, I had brachytherapy - an intensive blast of high-dose radiation.

This was followed at the Beacon with a course of beam radiotherapy, which went on over five very long weeks.

The downside was a feeling of overwhelming fatigue.

For months, I was zonked. While working at home from my PC, there were many times when I was falling asleep. Another effect is the outbreak of hot flushes.

I knew the implant would be in for three long years with a new rod inserted annually. Therefore, I had to bring other things into my life - new ideas and new plans.

I had to stimulate my mind with new interests. What I required was to put some joy back into my life.

In April this year I finally had my hormone implants removed. After three torrid years of treatment, the test results were good. I had followed to the letter instructions from my professional carers. My medication was eased out over the summer.

Now, both physically and psychologically, I felt like a man reinvented.

Sunday Independent

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