Sunday 17 December 2017

Engineer is still flying high after battle with cancer

Getting a diagnosis of prostate cancer does not mean the end. Prof John Monaghan tells Joy Orpen early diagnosis is key.

CHECK-UP: John Monaghan says that all men over 50 should have their PSA levels checked regularly. Photo: Gerry Mooney
CHECK-UP: John Monaghan says that all men over 50 should have their PSA levels checked regularly. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Joy Orpen

When John Monaghan was an apprentice, he would compete with other lads in his night class for the top places. Inevitably, they would nab the top slots in the country. So it's hardly surprising that he went on to become an engineer, university lecturer and head of department, with three doctorates. John, who comes from Drimnagh, married Catherine McEvoy, a local girl. They live in Leixlip, Co Kildare, and have three grown-up children and three grandchildren.

He taught at Bolton Street from 1967 until 1980 and thereafter lectured at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) until retirement in 2011. He continues teaching at TCD on contract.

When he was 66, John got his bus pass and simultaneously decided to go flying - "as one does," he quips. He was taken on an introductory flight by Darren Carty, an Aer Lingus pilot and former graduate student of his, and was immediately smitten by the flying bug. However, aviation rules insist on regular medical check-ups, and when John had his, the doctor noticed his prostate specific antigen (PSA) count was high. PSA is a protein produced in the prostate gland which turns semen into liquid. A raised PSA count in the blood can indicate cancer, but other causes are possible.

That was April 2011. When, six weeks later, there was no marked improvement, John was referred to Kiaran O'Malley, a urology consultant surgeon at the Mater Private Hospital, who diagnosed prostate cancer. According to the Irish Cancer Society, the prostate gland sits at the base of the bladder. The tube that drains urine from the bladder (the urethra) runs through the gland letting it flow out of the penis. Prostate cancer occurs when a tumour grows, disrupting the function of the gland.

In his case, surgery was considered the best option. "As befitting an engineer, it was decided to use the DiVinci Robot during surgery, and I wanted to see it working," he says. Five small incisions were made, and through these a light, a tiny microscope and scalpels were inserted. These allowed the consultant to orchestrate delicate, surgical work. John woke five hours later having seen nothing of the robot at work but his recovery time was reduced thanks to the high-tech equipment. He left the hospital three days later and was back lecturing within three weeks.

However, during the surgery it emerged that the tumour had affected some of the surrounding tissue. The sphincter in his urethra was damaged and this led to incontinence. So in August 2012, an artificial sphincter was fitted. John explains that a reservoir was placed in his stomach cavity. A tube was then passed from the reservoir to a small pump in his scrotum and from there to a cuff ringing the urethra. Moving the fluid forwards, and backwards, between the pump and the cuff, controls the flow of urine."It works," says John. Soon after, his PSA started to rise. This time, seven weeks of radiation therapy was prescribed. And initially that had the desired result. But in October of the same year, his PSA began creeping up again, so it was decided to treat the problem hormonally.

"Androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) is used to reduce testosterone," explains John, "as prostate cancer feeds on testosterone." He says he's had hormone injections since last July and they're working well. He points out that throughout all this he has been able to teach; to act as vice president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and to keep up with his passion for flying.

John cautions all men over 50 to have their PSA levels checked regularly. However, he says, "no matter what your age, if you have a swelling, blood in your urine, or have to piddle frequently, then see your doctor immediately. I have no doubt that if I hadn't followed up on my PSA problem, I would be dead now."

John is an active supporter of Men Against Cancer (MAC). He says all the members have survived prostate cancer and are available to offer non-medical support and advice to those recently diagnosed or having been treated for prostate cancer.

In closing, John says that a friend gave him a candle inscribed with these words: "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain."

For more information contact Men Against Cancer: telephone (087) 702 5800 or email The Irish Cancer Society has fact sheets relating to various aspects of prostate cancer, freefone: (1800) 200 700 or see

Sunday Independent

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