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Testicular cancer survivor: 'I came close to losing my life twice so I value every single day'

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Jonathan Tochnell pictured at tramore Strand in Co. Waterford. Photo:  Dylan Vaughan

Jonathan Tochnell pictured at tramore Strand in Co. Waterford. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Jonathan Tochnell pictured at tramore Strand in Co. Waterford. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Though he is only 31 years old, South African Jonathan Tocknell is determined to spread the gospel among men of all ages that they need to take their own health very seriously and not leave matters to chance. He is living proof that people can overcome serious illnesses such as testicular cancer and come out the other side wiser, and better able to live their lives.

Jonathan had a happy childhood growing up in Brakpan, near Johannesburg. However, in 2002 his father, an electrician, was offered employment in Ireland, so the whole family relocated to Waterford. A short while later, 20-year-old Jonathan met local girl Linda Moriarty and was soon smitten. They married and have two children, Kayden (6) and Meghan (2).

In 2007, Jonathan's father was made redundant, so he decided to return to South Africa, while Jonathan elected to remain here. He says though he is happy living in Waterford, he does miss his native country during the cold Irish winters. However, in 2013, he managed to evade some of the inclement weather by spending Christmas in South Africa. But on his return, life took a most unwelcome direction.

"I was in the shower when I noticed my left testicle was really swollen," says Jonathan. "At first I thought I'd knocked it, so I left it for a few days. Then on February 3, I went to the GP, who referred me to University Hospital Waterford (UHW) for an ultrasound scan. However, they were not able to tell for certain what was wrong, so a second scan was done on a more sophisticated machine."

About a week later, Jonathan was directed to Dr John Hegarty at the oncology department at UHW. "That day I was told I had testicular cancer," he says. "And that it had spread to lymph nodes in my stomach. I broke down and cried. Linda was in total shock. Dr Hegarty did his very best to reassure me and explained that they wouldn't know the full extent until a biopsy was done."

Jonathan was then sent to see Paul Sweeney, consultant urologist at Mercy University Hospital, Cork. "He was considered the best doctor for my case," says Jonathan. "I had a consultation with him on February 26 and the next day he operated. They removed my left testicle and all the tissue leading in and out of it."

Jonathan says he was not overly distressed to have lost one of his testicles. "In my mind, the main source of the problem was the tumour, and that was now gone. I said I could live with one testicle as long as I could live a long and healthy life," he says.

Jonathan had been advised to have his sperm harvested and frozen, and this had been done in Dublin. "They said there might be a chance that I wouldn't be able to have more kids [after radiation treatment]," he explains.

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Shortly after, while he was preparing himself for radiation treatment, it was discovered that the lymph nodes in his stomach had grown considerably. "The plan then changed and they decided I needed chemotherapy to 'clean out' my whole system, so I was sent to Consultant Oncologist Paula Calvert, at the Whitfield Clinic in Waterford," he explains.

Jonathan was given a body scan to make sure the cancer hadn't spread; mercifully it hadn't, although the lymph nodes in his stomach were still affected.

So, last June, he began four cycles of chemotherapy. Each cycle would entail one week's treatment in hospital followed by two weeks at home. "They said you could feel unwell from day seven to 10," says Jonathan. "They were right. By day seven I couldn't do anything other than open my eyes. I couldn't even get out of bed." Shortly after his first hospitalisation for chemotherapy, Jonathan woke one morning in agony. "I had terrible pains from my hips down my legs. I went to the after-hours doctor, who gave me an injection for pain," he says.

A similar thing happened after the next chemotherapy cycle, but this time Jonathan could hardly move at all. Suspecting appendicitis, the doctor sent him to A&E. Jonathan began to panic.

"I was worried that all the chemo had affected my immune system and that would put me at high risk of infection. So I didn't want them to operate," he says. However, Dr Calvert was soon on the scene and, knowing Jonathan's recent history, sent him for a scan, which found a blood clot in one of his kidneys.

"I came close to losing that kidney," he says. "But I was lucky. What if it had gone to my brain instead? I was told one of the drugs in the chemo had caused it; so they had to stop treatment in case I had a stroke." Now his back seemed to be against the wall, medically speaking.

However, doctors had noticed during the scan that the affected lymph nodes had, in fact, already begun to shrink. So he was referred back to Dr Dayle Hacking at the Whitfield Clinic for 18 sessions of radiation. On August 27, Jonathan completed the course, and four days later he celebrated his 31st birthday. "What a fantastic present I got," he says delightedly.

He describes the overall experience as "terrifying". "As the father of two small children, I imagined the worst. It's been a rough ordeal, but Linda was my solid rock through it all - she has proved to be my very, very best friend," he says. "I am also grateful to all the wonderful doctors and nurses who helped me, and for the wonderful support I got at the Solas [cancer support] Centre in Waterford." Jonathan says a good sense of humour helped him and Linda through the ordeal. "Sick as I was, I'd still be joking and that's how we got through it," he says.

He has already returned to work as a networks technician at Gaeltec, and urges men of every age to check themselves carefully on a regular basis and to have medical examinations. "If you spot something, see your doctor straight away," he says. "It's very important to catch these things in the early stages."

He says as a result of his difficult medical journey he has learned to look at things differently. "Life is short - do what makes you happy. I came close to losing my life twice, so I value every single day. I play soccer and I go to the gym to build up my strength," Jonathan says. "I want to have a happy life with Linda and our children. And I want to get a motorbike - I'm planning to go to the TT races on the Isle of Man next year. I've always wanted one, so now I'm going to do it."

Spoken like a true survivor.

For more information about cancer in men, contact a specialist nurse at the Irish Cancer Society , tel: (1800) 200-700 Monday-Thursday, 9am to 7pm and Friday 9am to 5pm. Or see cancer.ie/information/testicular


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