Billy Earl describes the physical and mental impact that prostate cancer has had on him since his diagnosis in 2018
My Dad was diagnosed before me, in July 2016. He had been taken into hospital with a suspected blood clot in his leg. He had no symptoms of prostate cancer but they checked his PSA among the other blood tests and it was high. They investigated further and discovered prostate cancer. He had 37 sessions of radiotherapy and two years of hormone treatment and is hoping to be given the all clear next month.
It was around Christmas 2017 when I first started having problems, getting up numerous times to go to the toilet overnight. I had just changed from working nights to days, so I put it down to that. Then around April 2018 I started having problems getting and maintaining an erection. At this point I started to become concerned but – like a typical male – found excuses not to go to my GP. Then I started to get pain in my right hip so couldn’t put it off any longer, so I visited my GP in July. It took three visits before he did a physical examination. He remained adamant that it wasn’t cancer but referred me to urology anyway.
On 21st November 2018 I saw the urologist. His first words were “Everything I'm reading tells me you have cancer”. This came as a total shock: I felt angry because my GP had ignored me and I was scared because I didn’t know how far the cancer had spread. But I also felt determined and I wasn’t giving in without a fight.
I was immediately put on hormone tablets and over the next few weeks had various scans and tests and finally a biopsy 21st December. This made Christmas difficult but we tried to enjoy it as best we could.
I was called in to get my biopsy results on 2nd January 2019. I was scared, nervous, anxious. The results showed that the cancer was very close to escaping the prostate and that it may have done already. I was advised to have my prostate removed: if any cells had escaped they could hopefully be mopped up with radiotherapy. So I had my prostate removed on 28 January 2019. I'd been warned that I might be left incontinent and impotent but at the time staying alive was more important to me.
The operation went well and then I had a six week wait to find out if all the cancer had been removed. They were long and difficult weeks. I was positive on the outside and put on a good front but I was extremely scared. I was 44, had just had an op that left me incontinent and impotent and it may all have been for nothing.
Sadly, at the end of those six weeks, it was confirmed the operation hadn't got all the cancer and it had spread. It was tough, and I felt angry, but I decided that the cancer had only won when it stopped me from laughing. I tried to take each day as it came, appreciating the little things that I'd taken for granted. Friends I hadn't seen for years got in touch again to offer support but others didn’t seem to want anything to do with me. I confronted some of them and they all said a similar thing: they just didn’t know what to say to me. I found that hurt. Yes, I had cancer but I was still me. Thankfully, they all got over themselves and are still in touch.
I went through 33 radiotherapy sessions which, weirdly, I enjoyed. I think it was because my life had a routine again. For six weeks, five days a week I had to attend hospital at a similar time. The staff were fantastic and always greeted you with a smile. We had a few laughs over the weeks.
When radiotherapy finished I went on a major downer. Still incontinent, still impotent, still unable to work. I felt in the way and worthless. It all came to a head one night when I stormed out over something so stupid I can’t even remember what it was. I drove around for a bit and actually considered killing myself. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of how my family and friends would feel. They’d wonder why I didn't go to them for help.
I came home and, for the first time in the 23 years I’d met my wife, cried uncontrollably for nearly an hour. I felt broken and worthless. Thankfully my wife is a great support for me. She understood and didn’t criticise me or call me stupid. She just held me and cried with me.
The next day I went to my GP who put me on antidepressants and put me in contact with the wellbeing team. I realised I had made the mistake of trying to be strong for everyone else: no one can do that. I tried to pretend I wasn’t scared and had it all under control. I didn’t.
My battle isn’t just with cancer but also with my head. You can try denial but it just eats you from the inside out. You need to be honest – not only with everyone around you but also with yourself.
Now I'm in a much better place. I still have dark days but I'm honest about them and talk them through with my wife or a friend. The whole lockdown has made this harder and also affected my fitness and strength. I was nearly at a stage where I could have returned to work part-time. But the lockdown meant I’ve had to start building my strength and fitness from scratch again. This got to me a bit but now I'm back walking the dog I'm feeling more positive again.
There has also been discussion about having an artificial sphincter fitted to help with my incontinence but there’s no set date yet. The impotence on the other hand is still a problem even after pumps and pills. There is talk of trying a form of injection but again nothing set in stone.
I don’t know how long I have but I'm trying to make the most of it. My bucket list has changed dramatically. No longer does it involve visiting exotic places or doing crazy things. It's simply to see my teenage children settle down and be happy. And hopefully meet at least one grandchild.