This thing inside me was a potential killer

Evening Echo columnist TREVOR LAFFAN reveals his diagnosis with prostate cancer, his brush with the over-stretched health service, and the simple blood test that can save your life
This thing inside me was a potential killer
Trevor Laffan at home in Cobh.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN August this year I got a bit of bad news when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

It didn’t come as a complete surprise, though, because I had been having some tests over the course of the previous months and they were all pointing in the one direction.

Nevertheless, it still hit me hard when I heard the actual diagnosis.

The word ‘cancer’ has a way of unsettling the most resilient of us.

My story is not unfamiliar, and there is hardly a household in the country that hasn’t been visited by the scourge of this disease in some form.

In my own case, it has already claimed my parents and my younger sister.

While it’s not always possible to win the battle with cancer, not every case is fatal either. There are steps we can take, in some circumstances, to identify the early onset of the disease and give ourselves a fighting chance.

Early detection is vital and it’s for that reason, I’m telling this story.

I have discovered a few things over the last few months that I think are important and need to be highlighted. But first, let’s go back to the beginning.

In January, 2018, I went for a regular blood test and it showed a rise in my PSA level. This test is used as an indicator that something may be going on with the prostate gland.

Trevor Laffan with his wife Gaye, at home in Cobh Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Trevor Laffan with his wife Gaye, at home in Cobh Picture: Eddie O'Hare

I have been monitoring mine for years so when my GP noticed a change, he decided to let it settle for a month or so and then repeat the test again and compare the results.

In March, the second test confirmed that the PSA level had risen so he did a a digital rectal examination (DRE), which involves physically feeling the prostate gland to feel for any abnormality. He wasn’t completely happy, so he decided to send me to a consultant.

The consultant carried out his own DRE and he felt an irregularity. He arranged to take it a step further and organised an MRI, which subsequently confirmed that there was a problem.

It was time to take it to the next level and he arranged for a biopsy to be carried out.

This is an uncomfortable procedure that involves taking 12 samples of the prostate which are sent for analysis. In my case, two of the 12 samples turned out to be positive for cancer and the scoring system that they use to determine the seriousness of the condition put me in the mid-level range.

Because of my age, 60, which is young in terms of the age profile of prostate cancer sufferers, the consultant decided that the best option for me was to have the prostate removed surgically.

The options I was given were:

Traditional surgery performed by a surgeon with a scalpel.

Or alternatively, robotic surgery, which is carried out by a machine controlled by a surgeon.

Robotic surgery was a completely new concept to me, but I had time to research both options before making a final decision because there was another hurdle to overcome first.

This next step was an Isotope Bone Test, which is carried out to determine if the cancer has spread beyond the prostate gland into the bone.

This process traces a dye as it travels around the body and can detect any irregularities in the bone, which can then be scanned for signs of cancer.

The good news for me was that this test showed that the cancer was contained within the prostate.

Next step, surgery.

I elected to have the robotic surgery and I met my surgeon on September 20 in Dublin as the procedure was set to take place in the Mater Private Hospital.

He arranged for me to be admitted the following Monday, September 24, and the surgery was carried on the Tuesday.

I rested on the Wednesday and I was released on Thursday and sent home to recover. Done and dusted.

I have had my eyes opened for me during these last few months. I had always believed that early detection is vital for a positive outcome when treating cancer because it’s all I ever heard.

We are constantly being advised to watch out for changes in our bodies and to contact our GP if we find anything suspicious.

Trevor Laffan with his wife Gaye, daughter Vicki and grandson Cooper at home in Cobh Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Trevor Laffan with his wife Gaye, daughter Vicki and grandson Cooper at home in Cobh Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Prostate cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in men over 50 years of age. We are told to watch out for the symptoms that include having difficulty in urinating, urinating frequently, and having to get up during the night and being unable to empty the bladder completely.

These are indicators that something might be awry. When the prostate is enlarged, it affects the flow. My GP described it to me as being a bit like putting your foot on a garden hose.

PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, is a protein produced by normal, as well as malignant, cells of the prostate gland. The PSA test measures the level of PSA in a man’s blood.

For this test, a blood sample is sent to a laboratory for analysis. The blood level of PSA is often elevated in men with prostate cancer.

It’s not conclusive and there are other reasons why someone might have a raised PSA, but it is another indicator.

Fortunately, I have been having my PSA checked for years by my GP. I have been with this man for more than 40 years and he has never let me down, so I have great faith in him.

When he said it was time to go further, that was good enough for me, but it was from that point on, that things got a little complicated.

Like everyone else, I am used to hearing stories of a crisis in the HSE, but it’s not until you see it for yourself that you get a real appreciation of how seriously screwed up it is.

As a layman, I’m not well versed when it comes to medical matters, but I have learned through first hand experience that our health care system is broken.

The word cancer sends a shiver up the spine of most people and as my mother, father and sister died from the disease, I had good reason to be nervous.

No matter how often you hear that prostate cancer is very treatable, and you shouldn’t worry, it doesn’t do much to reassure the person who has it.

As far as I was concerned, I had this thing growing inside me that had the potential to end my life and I wanted it out. The sooner the better.

I went to see a consultant at CUH, and was told I had to wait a few weeks for the biopsy to be arranged and a further six weeks before I got the result.

I was then advised that I needed an Isotope Bone scan and that appointment was set for November 5, more than ten weeks after receiving the result of the biopsy.

This, to my mind, went against all the advice about early detection. After all, what was the point in finding the cancer early if you have to wait over ten weeks to discover if it has spread somewhere else?

When I queried this, I was told that there were others who were in a more serious condition than I was, and they also had to wait. This was due to a huge waiting list and there was nothing they could do about it.

I wasn’t prepared to accept that, so I contacted the Bon Secours Hospital, where there is no waiting list, by the way, and had the scan arranged and completed within four days and my GP was given the result two days later.

The consultant, on the other hand ,was also given the result, but I would have to wait another three weeks if I opted to get the result from him.

I had had enough of these delays, so I took the matter in hand and contacted a surgeon in the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin and arranged the robotic surgery.

Two weeks later, I was on my way home to recover.

As of now, there are more than 700,000 people on hospital waiting lists. I was one of those and I would still be part of that number if I hadn’t rescued myself from the system.

I have been told by those working in that health system that it is broken, but we knew that already.

There can’t be much joined up thinking going on when there are two hospitals less than 2km apart, both doing Isotope Bone Scans, but one has a two and a half month waiting and the other has none.

I was told by a practitioner that the further you go up the chain of command, the less understanding they have of the reality of what it’s like at the coal face.

Meanwhile, those who do have to face the daily reality are blue in the face from trying to make things better for their patients and their frustration is obvious.

Those who are responsible for fixing it, don’t know how to. Health Minister Simon Harris strikes me as a genuine character, but he is struggling to make a difference, while the gurus in the HSE can’t solve the problems either.

Meanwhile, the 700,000 people who need to be treated for whatever ails them are worried about their future, and so they should be.

Some will have to wait up to two years for their appointments and could well depart this world before they get to see the relevant person. It’s not good enough, but we already knew that too.

Now, back to the reason that I am sharing my experience. I received my diagnosis without having any of the recognised symptoms and that surprised me.

I was going along, blissfully unaware that there was anything wrong with me and, only for the PSA test, I would have been in serious trouble.

I’m not the only one.

I have met lots of men in the last few months who received the same diagnosis as I did, and most of them had no symptoms either.

I thought mine was an unusual case, but it appears that this is very common, so the message is clear. It is vital that men of a certain age, have their PSA checked regularly by their GP.

They should not wait until they experience some problems with their waterworks because by then it could be too late.

Men need to be proactive and have themselves checked. It’s a simple blood test that could save their lives.

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