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Life after cancer

As Movember draws to a close and men from all over the world contemplate whether or not to shave off the facial hair they grew to raise awareness for male cancers, TD, Kevin Humphreys, recalls his shock when a pain in his groin turned out to be testicular cancer.

"In 1996, I was working long hours for Leo Pharma when I developed some discomfort in my lower region," he says. "I ignored it for a while, but then it began to get painful, so I decided to visit my GP who diagnosed an infection and put me on a course of antibiotics.

"I thought that was the end of the matter and went back to work, but the medicine didn't clear up the pain - if anything, it started to get worse and about a week later, it became very severe so I returned to the doctor who referred me to St Vincent's Hospital immediately."

Humphreys, who is married to Catherine and has two children, still believed he had an infection and spent a day undergoing tests which would determine the nature of his illness - but nothing could have prepared him for the reality.

"I had various tests and scans at the hospital and presumed I would go home to wait for results," he says. "But the consultant came to see me afterwards and said he would need to investigate further and perhaps do a biopsy as they still weren't sure what was going on.

"I went home, fully expecting to be called back a few weeks later, but the following day I had a phone call advising me to go back in that evening to prepare for surgery. I still didn't think anything was amiss and it wasn't until the anaesthetist arrived that I was told I had testicular cancer and would have to have a testicle removed.

"Needless to say, I was utterly shocked and asked to see the consultant before anything further happened. But he confirmed that this was the case and there was no point waiting as there was also the very real possibility that the cancer had spread elsewhere."

The 56-year-old, who was only 38 when he was diagnosed, underwent surgery the following morning and despite being traumatised by the speed of his treatment, was more concerned about being fit enough to be a father to his children and being there for his wife.

"The nature of how everything happened left me shell-shocked," he reveals. "I had gone from preparing to have a biopsy to determine an infection to being told I had cancer and needed surgery, and then finding out that it may have spread to other areas - it was so much to take in.

"But the surgery went ahead as planned and although I was booked to stay in hospital for a week, I checked myself out the following day as I wanted to be with Catherine and the children - I was more worried about them than myself to be honest, as I knew my illness would completely take over family life.

"A few days later, results revealed the worst and I was told that the cancer had spread to my stomach and there was a slight shadow on my lung. It was terrible news, particularly as I realised that I may have prevented it from spreading if I had gone to the doctor as soon as I realised something was wrong - but apparently I have a fairly high pain threshold and did my best to ignore the symptoms for as long as possible."

Still reeling from surgery and the news that his cancer had spread, the Minister of State knew he and his family were in for an arduous time ahead so decided to take some time out before undergoing a long and traumatic chemotherapy programme.

"I knew enough about cancer to know that the next few months would be very tough on all of us, particularly Catherine, as it is often harder to be the carer than it is the patient," he says. "So we went on a brief family holiday so we could spend some time together before the next stage began - and I'm so glad we did because the following few months were very hard.

"I was due to have nine months of treatment but had to stop after seven months as I got fibrosis of the lung as a result of the particular sort of chemo I was on. The treatment in itself was pretty horrendous as I suffered really badly with nausea and had a big issue with dehydration - so much so that I was taken into hospital a few times to be hydrated.

"I lost all of my hair (apart from a few strands in my eyebrows) and became so bloated from the steroids that Catherine joked that I had become extremely big headed."

The physical side effects of chemotherapy took their toll on Humphreys but he also suffered emotionally, and once his health was restored, vowed to ensure he never took life for granted again.

"Because I came off the chemo so abruptly (due to the onset of fibrosis), I developed a bit of depression afterwards," he admits. "But I had a lot of support both from family and from my medical team, so was able to work my way through it and eventually return to good health.

"It was an awful time but I really feel that it changed me for the better. My experience with cancer altered my attitude to life and made me realise that we only have a certain amount of time to get the most out of our lives, so we need to use that time as productively as possible.

"I had always been talking about entering politics, but kept putting it off - so my illness gave me the motivation to get on with things, and when the elections took place in 1999, I decided to run for office."

His career took off and now the Labour TD represents the Department of Social Protection. Supportive of the Movember campaign since its conception, he had every intention of growing an impressive 'mo' this year, but his attempts were foiled twice.

"I have grown a 'mo' on a number of occasions but this year I made two attempts to grow one and both times I had to shave it off as I needed to have official photos taken," he says. "But I have always supported the campaign because it highlights the danger of cancer and the ways in which men can help prevent it. And I would encourage everyone to sit up and pay attention to this message and, if possible, offer some support as the campaign is making a big difference in the fight against male cancers."

With this advice, the Dublin TD also says that men need to start looking after themselves the same way that women do - and says they shouldn't be embarrassed to seek help if they are worried about anything.

"Women are always being encouraged to check for signs of breast cancer and men should apply the same advice in checking for testicular irregularities," he advises. "Before I got sick I was like most men, and it would have never crossed my mind to check myself for lumps and bumps or to report any discomfort.

"But if I had been more aware, my cancer would have been caught early so it would probably not have spread and I wouldn't have had to go through all the treatment I did. In fact, since my diagnosis, I have met other men who went to the doctor as soon as they suspected something was wrong and they were back on their feet within eight or nine weeks.

"I am also back to my full health, but my advice, to men of all ages, is to check themselves regularly in the shower and tell the doctor if there is anything which doesn't seem right - it may just save their lives."

For more advice, visit www.cancer.ie and www.movember.com

Health & Living