For many men, the side effects of prostate cancer treatment can be as daunting as the disease itself. Wildlife photographer Gary tells us how the shock of his diagnosis was compounded by fears of incontinence after having surgery, and what he did to give himself the best chance of preventing it.
Last September, at 61 years old, I was given the news that no man wants to hear: "You’ve got prostate cancer."
To say I was devastated would be an understatement. But being told that I could be incontinent after having treatment was the most frightening thing I've ever heard.
I only decided to have another PSA test after a random conversation with my friends playing golf. I was going along to see my GP a few days later and requested it. Shockingly, my PSA level had actually doubled in two years.
My first reaction was that I felt fine! I had no symptoms and had always been in good health and very active. I also have no family history of prostate cancer and wasn’t really aware of my risk. My GP did the test again as I just couldn’t believe the result, but the second one came back the same.
I then quickly went on to see a consultant, who confirmed my prostate cancer diagnosis. He spoke to me about having surgery and that afterwards, urine could be ‘pouring out of me’.
I’ve been held at gunpoint, but the prospect of being incontinent was much more terrifying!
When my wife and I left, we cried in the car park. I thought: ‘Am I better off dying or being incontinent for the rest of my life?’ I’ve been held at gunpoint in Nigeria when I worked as an engineer many years ago, but the prospect of being incontinent was much more terrifying!
Over the next two days, I completely broke down.
When I told my GP about what the consultant had said, he was very unhappy and sent me to another urologist who was more reassuring and professional. Eventually I had surgery at the London Clinic and my aftercare at the Bushey Spire Hospital with Tim Briggs, close to my home, where I had a good experience. The consultant gave me all the facts and explained everything in simple terms, exploring all the different options.
A lot of the advice I got from well-meaning friends at the time was not very helpful or accurate, and actually made things worse. But my wife called the Specialist Nurses at Prostate Cancer UK and told me to speak to them. They were amazing: honest and balanced and very easy to talk to.
I did pelvic floor exercises religiously before the operation, and still continue to do them now
I was given the choice of radiotherapy, but I opted for an operation to remove the whole prostate. Two years of radiotherapy or four-and-half hours of surgery was – for me – not a hard decision, but I feel lucky that I had the choice.
I underwent a robot-assisted prostatectomy, which was very successful. My wounds healed and I recovered remarkably quickly afterwards. The only painkillers I took were paracetamol and I had to have a catheter for 10 days. I was very relieved when it came out!
Much to my relief, I didn’t experience any incontinence after the operation – which was my biggest fear. I did pelvic floor exercises religiously before the operation, as advised by my consultant and the Specialist Nurses at Prostate Cancer UK, and still continue to do them now.
I’m extremely fortunate to be one of the five per cent of men who don’t experience incontinence after surgery, and believe my exercises and the skill of the surgeon are to thank for that.
As a wildlife photographer, I’m lucky to be going with my wife to the Arctic next year to photograph polar bears
My wife and family have been amazing at helping me with my recovery, getting me out walking every day – as have my friends. A positive attitude has also really helped me through it all. I’m now looking forward to the future.
As a wildlife photographer [see some examples of his astonishing work below], I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to go with my wife to the Arctic next year to photograph the polar bears – something at one point I thought I might not be able to do. I also hope to take part in one of Prostate Cancer UK’s golf days and give back after all their help dealing with my diagnosis.
I don’t want any man to feel as frightened as I did when I was told I might have to live with incontinence – and with the right information and support, they shouldn’t have to.