After being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, our former chairman, Paul Forster, was told any remedies may only be effective for two years. But following extensive treatment, he is now cancer-free and receives an MBE in the Queen’s New Year honours list for services to patients with prostate cancer. He describes how he didn’t let the disease rob him of his manhood and why it’s made him a more rounded family man.
Back in 1999, you could say I was pretty much at my peak. In my mid-fifties, I worked in a high-profile job, played lots of sport and had a pretty good diet. I’d never had any serious disease in my life. Then in August that year, I went for a health screening and among the list of things I came away with was a prostate specific antigen (PSA) reading of 78. I had no idea what that meant – whether it was high, low, or indifferent – but the consultant told me to go and see my doctor.
Of course, in the meantime I dived into the internet and found out pretty quickly that a PSA of 78 was not likely to be very good news. So I had the inevitable biopsy and sat outside the door of the urologist, waiting for the results. I just knew from his body language that it wasn’t going to be good news.
I was fit and healthy then suddenly I’m being told I’ve got a couple of years to live
“Can we just get to the bottom line?” I said after his initial chit-chat.
“The bottom line is you’ve got a prostate cancer that’s a grade seven Gleason score, which means the disease has already spread beyond the prostate gland,” he replied. “So surgery isn’t appropriate and radiotherapy is too risky. Your only option is hormone therapy.”
“What’s the outcome of that?” I asked.
“The average period of effectiveness is two years and after that you’re in trouble.”
“Blimey. What’s plan B?”
Not a very good one was effectively his answer.
I came out of that room thinking 'wow'. I thought I was fit and healthy and saw the horizon of my life extending out long in front of me. Then suddenly I’m being told I’ve got a couple of years or so to live.
I think one of two things tends to happen in that situation. You either go under a big, black cancer cloud, saying woe is me and this is the end. Or you say: I don’t know why this happened or why it should be me, but – what the hell – I’m going to do whatever I can to defeat it. I don’t know how but I’m going to try. That was my reaction.
So I got into a fairly pragmatic state of mind about the disease. I just didn’t realise how much tougher it would be for my immediate family to get their heads around it. My kids were absolutely distraught. Their invincible, problem-solving dad would now probably be dead in a couple of years. Similarly, my wife found my being so matter-of-fact about it incredibly difficult. “You’re talking about it like a project,” she said at one point, very upset.
Through a combination of hormone therapy, diet, radical immune support supplements, expert support, and my own dogged determination not to give in, the disease didn’t manage to kill me within two years. In fact, I flat-lined my PSA at around two or three for six years. Then in 2005 I was lucky enough to be invited by the Royal Marsden hospital to participate in an early stage trial of Intensity-Modulated Radiotherapy. The more focused and defined beam of radiotherapy was much less likely to affect and harm organs around the pelvic area, and I underwent the treatment for five days-a-week over six weeks. Since then, my PSA has remained effectively zero. So as of now, fifteen years after being given my two-year diagnosis, I've beaten the disease.
To say that it's been a good thing to have cancer would be a lie. The treatments have taken away the majority of my testosterone, which has affected my sex life. Some guys might find that a big problem, but I’ve told myself I’ve had a pretty good time and hanging up my boots in my late fifties isn’t too bad. It’s probably tougher on my wife, though.
I feel more sensitive to other people’s issues, with a greater determination to help
Yet some quite interesting insights have come from the experience. My priorities have changed enormously in terms of family and personal ambitions. In some ways, it’s actually made me a nicer, more rounded person. The hurly-burly of competitive business life has become less important and I feel more sensitive to other people’s issues, with a greater determination to help. I'm not sure my tennis partners would think I'm less competitive though!
I've done more charitable work in the last ten years than in the previous 40 combined. That’s partly because I recognise the people who have helped me also need support. I’m truly proud to have been associated with Prostate Cancer UK over all these years [Paul first volunteered with us in 2002 and was chairman from 2005 to 2013]. We have achieved an immense amount and treatments have improved immeasurably. The disease wasn’t even on the public’s radar 15 years ago; now it’s properly recognised as the biggest cancer killer of men and receiving the sort of attention it deserves.
But we’ve not reached the end, by any means. The charity has the ambition and determination to truly get on top of prostate cancer in the next decade. But to do that needs more and more support. If you are an existing supporter of Prostate Cancer UK, I’d say thank you very much. And if you are a potential supporter, let me say: please, we need every extra one of you to help us on this hugely important and challenging journey.