When the Daily Express' editor, Gary Jones, fell ill after a holiday in Spain, it led to a shock diagnosis and urgent surgery to remove his prostate. He recalls the rollercoaster of emotions he experienced since then and explains why his life will never be the same again.
A scorpion saved my life. Now, there’s an introduction to a story you don’t read every day.
It’s a story I’ve told a fair few times among friends and colleagues. But sharing it with a wider audience... well, fair to say, I’ve been reluctant.
Reluctant because the scorpion – which put a slight dampener on my summer holiday in the heart of Spain – set off a chain reaction that left myself minus one body part.
On my return, still feeling the after-effects, I discussed the matter with my doctor, John McGrath. He took a simple blood test. One week later Dr McGrath informed me the sting had caused no lasting damage.
However, the amount of prostate specific antigen (PSA) in my blood – a protein produced by normal cells in the prostate, but also by prostate cancer cells – was higher than the norm of 3ng/ml for a man of 53. I was a little alarmed, but not unduly as around three quarters of men with a raised PSA level don’t have prostate cancer.
However, as longevity isn’t the strongest characteristic of the Jones clan I wanted to be tested to the max. There was the usual, fearful, finger test, a talk through what could lay ahead with a consultant, an MRI scan and then, news that stops your life in an instant. There IS something there.
Next step a biopsy. Uncomfortable, unpleasant but necessary. A couple of weeks later, I was anxiously waiting to hear the prognosis.
"You have cancer" are words inducing the complete inability to compute a single thing the person opposite you is saying.
I wanted to say: "So, when am I going to die exactly? And should I book a slightly more expensive holiday now rather than later?" But I didn’t. I mumbled thank you, and emerged into the gloom with the world looking an entirely different place.
Carrying on with life knowing there is cancer in you is by no means easy. You feel like a walking time bomb.
The all important trip to the oncologist brought good news and bad.
My Gleason score, to indicate how aggressive the cancer is, was seven. Intermediate, but certainly not something to ignore. The cancer, caught early, was contained within the prostate.
Now the tricky bit. What do you want to do about it?
a) Active surveillance. Monitoring the cancer’s growth.
c) Robotic prostatectomy. Cutting out the prostate and the cancer.
And so I found myself sitting with Mr Bijan Khoubehi, a surgeon of the calibre of wonder striker Lionel Messi. Calm and impressive, he talked me through how he would cut a number of small holes in my stomach and remove my prostate using robotic instruments.
Mr Khoubehi informed Mrs Jones [pictured with Gary below] there would be no more Jones progeny (we have two children), with the prostate – and my sperm – disappearing forever. This news wasn’t entirely unwelcome to Mrs Jones.
The potential side effects are words no bloke wants to hear: incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Mr Khoubehi explained that precision in cutting without harming the nerve bundles necessary for an erection is imperative, and I nodded attentively. I reached for my diary.
"Can we pencil in the op?" I said. "I don’t know about you, but the sooner the better for me."
Waking up and thinking a robotic arm will be cutting out a part of my anatomy in a couple of hours is an unusual thought to start the day.
Driving to hospital on the same route I usually took to work was mildly disorientating. Parked up, I presented myself to the ward sister, signed a form confirming my identity and tried to appear nonchalant.
Only a few decades ago, any man having his prostate removed would have had considerably more fears. Even at the beginning of this century the chances of impotence with incontinence a one-in-10 possibility. Today, the odds are better and improving all the time. I was telling myself that as I was wheeled in front of the anaesthetist.
If your cancer hasn’t spread beyond the prostate, then da Vinci keyhole surgery might be for you. And that’s what Mr Bijan Khoubehi was performing on me. Five small incisions in my stomach and the robot with its four arms, one holding a camera, the other three surgical instruments, were put into action through the precise hand movement of my surgeon.
This is called a nerve-sparing prostatectomy for the very good reason that you want the prostate out, but the nerves controlling your future love-making firmly intact. Three hours later my walnut sized prostate was pulled through my belly button and into the outside world. What happened to it next I care not a jot.
Waking up to the paraphernalia of drips, a catheter and a searing pain in my stomach, was not exactly pleasant. But it was over and I breathed a sigh of relief. I wanted to leave the hospital immediately so pretended to Mr Khoubehi on his rounds the next morning that all was hunky dory.
It wasn’t. I hadn’t taken enough morphine because I was so desperate to go home. He said it was sensible to stay another day. I was dressed ready to go when he arrived the next day.
Back home, Mrs Jones was a particularly good nurse and I was an impatient patient. A week later my catheter was removed with one sharp pull. Minor ouch, and the staples removed from my stomach.
Life was returning to normal... apart from wearing nappy-style underwear to cope with the lack of control from my bladder. Fortunately, that didn’t last long. Several weeks later I presented myself to Mr Khoubehi again.
I was eagerly awaiting the results of my latest PSA antigen test. My PSA was undetectable. Good news. We then discussed the tricky subject of how my penis had responded. Prostate cancer and the loss of action in that department is what most men fear – some quite literally more than death itself. A sense of humour is needed, quite a big one actually.
"There are various options," Mr Khoubehi said matter-of-factly.
My facial reaction to a Caverject injection, yes injection, which works by increasing blood flow to the penis and helps to cause an erection, could have gone viral. There’s also Viagra, or a pump device. If you’ve any further interest in this subject there are many helpful websites.
Without wishing to totally invade my own privacy, there is life in the old dog yet. But very few sufferers experience a return to normality within the blink of an eye.
Since my operation, I’m cancer free. One thing for sure is that life after cancer is never the same. It’s not there for the wasting.