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Prostate cancer: bummed out
May 5, 2011 | By:

Colin Bostock-Smith enters the exclusive club that no one wants to join

Bob Monkhouse: pin-up for the prostate generation. Photo thanks to Prostate Cancer Research Foundation

There are five or six of us men there at any one time. Plus wives and girlfriends who are there to support us. We sit in comfortable chairs, in our special blue fabric slippers and our special blue linen trousers, and we sip frequently at half-litre bottles of water.

We know each other, by sight at least, and exchange greetings as we join the group. We chat about the trivialities of the day, and if there is a slight strain in our voices, some slightly tense expressions, it’s only because each of us is busting for a pee but not allowed to go. Not until we’ve been treated.

Welcome to the Prostate Cancer Radio Therapy Club.

I worked with Bob Monkhouse once, and liked him a lot, so his post-death urging of men over 50 to get checked for prostate cancer moved me to tears. But it didn’t move me to the medical centre. I was too scared. It was a routine blood test that did the trick.

Then came the examination – the insertion of the dreaded gloved finger – and a few days later the biopsy. That involves the insertion of a lot more than just a finger, followed by what I can only describe as a series of fundamental explosions. (I once asked my brother, a fellow sufferer, if he found these intrusions humiliating. “Yes,” he said, straight-faced, “but they like it.”)

The first steps of treatment

Diagnosed, I did a little internet research, and was relieved to learn that while one in six American men are found to have prostate cancer, only one in 34 of them die of it. As my doctor put it: “You’ll probably die of something else first.” (Thanks, doctor.)

Then came the first step in my treatment. Hormones. Female hormones. I asked an oncology nurse why. “Well, we’ve got to shut down your testicles, haven’t we!” she said brightly. (Thanks, nurse.)

Testicles safely shut down – temporarily, one hopes, though they don’t commit themselves on that one – I began my radiotherapy.

The treatment itself at your local oncology centre takes ten minutes, which is fine. But it’s ten minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. Which isn’t quite so fine.

Oncology centres are few and far between in our glorious National Health Service, so patients often have to travel. I have to travel: 75 minutes each way. Five days a week, eight weeks. Currently I’m four weeks in and counting.

It’s an intimidating prospect, but from your first day you realise an essential truth: you are not alone. Quite the reverse. You are joining a jovial band of chaps, a fellowship, an ever-changing freemasonry, all of us in the same state of mind. Not to mention the same state of body.

Newcomers to the club are made welcome. The atmosphere is so decent, so calm, so friendly, so optimistic, that even a hardened old curmudgeon like me gets drawn in. Experienced hands offer tips to the new boys.

‘Timing is of the essence’

“Your socks don’t need to come off,” said a nice chap on my second day (and they don’t, though your trousers and underpants do). We don’t compare medical symptoms – that would be too intrusive – but those into their seventh and eighth weeks flourish their attendance sheets like long-service records. The lucky devils completing their last day of treatment are sent on their way with handshakes and effusive good wishes.

Meanwhile, the rest of us sip at our bottles of water, discreetly topping up our bladders to ensure that they are full when our turn for treatment comes. This is the difficult bit, but necessary. Timing is of the essence, and they say it gets easier with practice. I hope so.

So there we sit, waiting patiently to be called in for our ten minutes under the radiotherapy machine, an experience I can only liken to being in an automatic car wash without any water. While we wait, our convivial conversation continues, ranging not just on medical matters, but far and wide over everything from holidays to pets to grandchildren to… well, almost anything.

But in my mind – and I suspect in the mind of every other man in that talkative company – two thoughts remain unspoken. They are these:

“Will I be able to hang on with my full bladder until my turn comes?”

And: “This will cure my cancer… won’t it?”