Men’s Health Week starts today and Tom Barrett advocates others to visit their doctor over any medical concerns after his visit to the GP for a routine issue led to the discovery of prostate cancer and leukaemia
More than 13,100 men and 11,600 women are diagnosed with invasive cancer each year in Ireland, but women are more likely to seek medical advice sooner than their male counterparts.
During Men’s Health Week, which starts today and runs until June 19, health officials hope to encourage men to visit their GP over any health concerns whatsoever that may arise.
Tom Barrett can attest to the importance of this as seven years ago he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (also called CLL), which is a slow-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow, without having any discernible symptoms and a few years later was diagnosed with prostate cancer after a routine blood test.
“I have a condition called diverticulitis (inflammation in the intestine) and in 2015, I had been away in Germany on business when it flared up and I began to feel unwell,” he says. “I arrived back home on a Friday afternoon and I couldn’t get an appointment with my GP so I went into A&E, hoping to get some antibiotics which would help to treat it. But, needless to say, they wanted to do their own blood tests and instead of being given medicine and sent home, I was told that I needed to be admitted.
“I was really surprised at this, but thought that I must have had a very bad bout of diverticulitis as I was feeling really sick at that point. I remember that it was the weekend before Ireland was playing France in the quarter final of the World Cup and I was meant to be going over to Cardiff to watch it with my son.
“But I was still in the hospital on the Monday as they said there were aspects to my blood results which they weren’t happy with and on the Wednesday, I said to them that I needed to get out as I was going to Wales on the weekend — at that point, they told me that there was no way I would be going.”
Instead of flying to the game that Friday, the 57-year-old was seen by a specialist who told him that he would be referred to see a haematologist as there was “something very wrong” with his bloods.
He was told that there were a number of possibilities regarding the issue but they wouldn’t know until further tests. So, after discharging him, with an appointment to return a few weeks later for a bone marrow biopsy, he went home, none the wiser. However, two weeks later he was told that he had CLL and that nothing could be done for the foreseeable future.
“When they told me, I thought momentarily that I was in the wrong place and they were telling the wrong person,” he says. “It was the most frightening thing anyone had ever said to me and it scared the life out of me and after my wife Cathy and I went home both in shock, we took our laptops out and started Googling.
“Luckily they had told us not to look up any information which was older than three years, as much of it wasn’t relevant and would only be frightening. I had been told that the only thing that could be done at this stage was to ‘watch and wait’, which I think is a silly name, as really it should be called ‘wait and worry’ as your head is fried with it.
“I had a lot of tests done to find out what stage I was at and apparently the variant I have is very indolent, but in the last six months, things have changed a bit. So although nothing much happened in seven years, I will probably have to have some treatment shortly.”
While going for regular blood tests to ascertain the progress of his CLL, the father of two grown-up children, was told that his PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels were slightly raised but there wasn’t anything to worry about.
However, he decided that he didn’t want to take any chances so asked to be referred to a urologist — and this is when he was given a second unexpected diagnosis.
“The specialist told me that I had an enlarged prostate,” he says. “Then the complications started as further tests revealed that I had a Gleeson score (which defines low to high-grade cancer) of four and three and something needed to be done fairly quickly. I was told that normally I would have had a number of options but because of the CLL, I could either have a robotic prostatectomy (surgery to remove all or part of the prostate gland) or radiotherapy, which would blast the cancer with lasers.
“After having a chat with my GP, my family and the CLL specialist, we all felt that the prostatectomy was the best route to go down. So in August 2020, that is what I had done. It wasn’t pleasant or easy and neither was the recovery, but now, almost three years later, I am out the far side of it.”
The Dublin man, who worked as a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company, says the shock of getting two diagnoses has been difficult, but he feels very fortunate that the cancer was detected in time and urges other men not to ignore any symptoms.
“Being told I had CLL was a big shock and then almost five years later to be told I had another cancer, was like being kicked down again just as I had got up.”
“Being told I had CLL was a big shock and then almost five years later to be told I had another cancer, was like being kicked down again just as I had got up,” he says. “But I am so glad I am proactive with my health and got seen fairly quickly in both instances — as now things are as good as can be expected regarding the prostate and hopefully when I start the CLL treatment, that will all be sorted too.
“I am probably a typical male full of bravado, going to matches and having the craic, so I know how easy it is to just ignore a health problem and hope it will sort itself out. But that’s not the way to go forward and I would advise any other men who feel at all unwell, to go to the doctor as soon as possible — because the sooner something gets checked out, the sooner it can be sorted. I started this journey looking for antibiotics for my diverticulitis and I’m so glad that I got myself to the doctor, as it might be a whole other story if I hadn’t.”
Thankfully, Tom’s tale has a positive ending and there are ways in which men can reduce their risk of prostate cancer, including being a healthy weight and having a healthy diet, being physically active, being aware of family history and talking to their GP about having a PSA blood test. Possible signs of prostate cancer include having to pass urine more often, particularly at night, trouble starting or stopping the flow, a slow flow of urine and pain when passing urine.
Attending screening appointments and visiting your GP if you have any concerns, can help to detect the cancer early and Kevin O’Hagan, cancer prevention manager at the Irish Cancer Society, said it is vital for men to do this, as during Covid-19, numbers of prostate cancer diagnoses were greatly reduced.
“Fewer men were attending their GP and as a result, referrals to rapid access clinics for prostate cancers fell by almost half at the beginning of the pandemic,” he says.
“Cancer services are already seeing the results of this, with patients presenting later and at more advanced stages, and experts have warned that such delays will lead to more cancer deaths over the next 10 years. So Men’s Health Week provides an opportunity to encourage men, even if they have no symptoms, to have a conversation with their doctor about their prostate health (and any other issues which they may be concerned about).
“One of the real difficulties with prostate cancer is that it often doesn’t cause any symptoms until it becomes advanced. The best chance we have to treat and cure this disease is to catch the cancer early, before symptoms develop. Therefore, we would encourage men from the age of 45 to speak to their doctor about their prostate health.”
⬤ About 3,890 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in Ireland. This means that one in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.
⬤ It usually affects men over the age of 50 and your risk is higher if you have a brother or father with the disease.
⬤ It is also higher if your relative developed prostate cancer at a younger age or if you have more than one relative with the disease.
⬤ The two genes identified as increased risk are the Brca1 and Brca2 genes. Men with Brca2 are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer.
⬤ Prostate cancer is life-threatening but can be treated if caught in time.
⬤ Afro-Caribbean men are at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer.
⬤ Having a risk factor doesn’t mean you will get cancer. Very often people with no risk factors get the disease.
⬤ Less common symptoms include blood in the urine or semen and the feeling of not emptying your bladder fully.
⬤ Seek medical advice, if you have any concerns whatsoever.
⬤ For questions or concerns about cancer, contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit cancer.ie
Men’s Health Week is funded by the Health Service Executive Health and Wellbeing and the Public Health Agency. Check out mhfi.org for more information and events