FATHER-of-three Chrys Ngwa, who lives in Carrigtwohill, was diagnosed in March, 2019, with stage 4 prostate cancer. The 53-year-old is participating in the Public and Patient Involvement Panel (PPI) for Breakthrough Cancer.
“I was devastated on hearing the news, which is typical of anyone learning that they have this almost incurable disease,” says Chrys.
“However, I was somewhat relieved at the time as prostate cancer wasn’t one of the most lethal of cancers. I was thankful that it hadn’t metastasised to my brain, which was also suspected as I had gone in with a severe headache.”
Prostate cancer can be easy to detect.
“It is easily diagnosed through a very simple blood test, in which the lab checks for a patient’s PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen), which is the biomarker for prostate cancer,” says Chrys.
“The PSA score should be zero but mine was 176, which is a ridiculous reading really. Looking back, I’ll say this is when things started to go wrong. I was booked in the following week to harvest biopsies of the growth. The biopsy (or samples of the cancer), will be used to determine its chemical make-up, thus helping determine the best treatment plan.
“Unfortunately for me, the results were very, very bad. The potency of prostate cancer is measured in something called a Gleason score, which goes from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst type of cancer, which is the ability of the cancer to spread to other parts of the body.”
Chrys’ measurement was high.
“My measurement was 9! You can count the number of people in Ireland who have ever had a Gleason score of 9 on one hand and still have nine fingers to spare!” says Chrys.
“At this point, my oncologist made it clear that I was in serious trouble with the disease. Not many people with a Gleason score of 6 are known to survive 6 months after diagnosis.”
Chrys had another setback.
“I had one further scare when I was told the medical team had observed a ‘shadow’ on one of my scans around the pelvic bone, suggesting that the metastasis had reached my skeletal frame. This was the point when I stopped being positive about my outcome,” says Chrys.
“I needed counselling, which was kindly provided by the amazing people in Cork ARC Cancer Support House. This was really invaluable and life-changing to me, to the point where I now evangelise that one of the first clinicians that a newly diagnosed cancer patient should see, should be a psych-consultation.
“Being told one has cancer puts so much mental strain on anyone, that they deserve to be seen by appropriately trained oncological psychotherapist, even before they speak to their lead oncologist. It is crucial, in my view, that every patient’s MDT should have a psychologist as part of its make-up.”
Chrys got some good news.
“In the following several weeks before a bone scan could take place, it worked out that the shadow was just a shadow and nothing more sinister.”
What was the impact on Chrys’ loves ones?
“The impact on my family was terrible,” he says.
“I have a fairly young family; two daughters who are now 20 and 16 years old and ‘Junior’ who is only 12. They were all three years younger when I was diagnosed so you can imagine the thought of leaving my wife alone to fend for these kids was so unimaginable to me.
“I had several weeks of sleeplessness thinking about it. The thought of not seeing them grow up gave me more reason to truly believe I was going to make it,” says Chrys.
“It’s weird thinking about it, but I always told everyone that cancer had picked a fight with the wrong person. The kids knew I was very sick but not how bad the prognosis at the time was.”
Chrys’ wife Rosaleen’s parents sadly passed away from cancer.
“My wife’s father was also suffering from a benign brain cancer that had enveloped his pituitary gland,” says Chrys.
“He did pass away in January, 2020, and just a few weeks after his passing, my wife’s mum was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and she too passed away in November the same year.
“Rosaleen essentially lost two parents in the same year and also had a husband undergoing treatment for the same disease. I think I was/am the lucky one in the relationship!”
How was Chrys treated?
“The treatment plan was varied and harsh,” he says.
“I started with something called Androgen deprivation therapy, (ADT), which starves the cancer of ‘food’. This is then followed by many sessions of very, very harsh chemotherapy.”
Chrys still lived his life.
“I managed to go on holidays for two weeks with my family in the middle of the chemo treatment,” he says.
“I wanted to enjoy every second of every minute I had with the family as we still didn’t know what was going to happen. The chemo treatment wrapped up in October, 2019, and I started daily radiation therapy, which continued until late November.”
The treatment took its toll.
“I stopped at some point as my body could no longer tolerate the radiation,” says Chrys.
“By this time, my PSA had come down to 10. I have since had several surgical procedures to correct the damage caused by the radiation. All in all, I think I’ve responded really well to all the treatments.
“My PSA is now measured at below 0.05, which is a far cry from the 176 from three years ago. However, I am reminded by the oncologist that the disease will ‘re-present’ itself again in the future. Based on that, we decided to start another treatment based on new(ish) therapy called Abiraterone (Zytiga) by Janssen.
“I’ve only been on it quite recently so nothing to report on its efficacy.”
Why is Chrys participating in the Public and Patient Involvement Panel for Breakthrough Cancer Research?
“I see myself as the voice of the patient on the panel,” says Chrys.
“And it’s a very rewarding task for me, to participate in something that will one day improve patient outcomes. How amazing is that? It is extraordinarily rewarding for me.”
Would Chrys advise men to get checked regularly?
“That is one of the reasons I’m doing this interview,” he says.
“It is so important for every man to get a PSA test once they get past the age of 45 years. And it is such a simple test to do. Look at it this way, every single male will develop prostate cancer if they live long enough. It could happen when they are 120 years old - lucky ones; but some unlucky ones develop the disease much sooner. It is really important to get the test done and it is recommended by the health buffs anyway.”
What is Chrys’ prognosis?
“My cancer is untreatable,” he says.
“It will come back at some point in the future, whether that’s next year or in five years’ time is not the point -it will re-present itself.
“The challenge for someone in my position is an acceptance of the inevitability of the situation, which I have. I think there’s a positive with all of this in that someone in my position has come to terms with the certainty of the end, which nearly everyone that hasn’t faced their mortality has always tended to postpone it ‘until until...’ “
If you would like to get involved in Breakthrough’s Public Patient Initiative and help improve cancer research, treatments and care, please complete the online form on breakthroughcancerresearch.ie or contact Dr Frances Drummond on 021-4226655 of firstname.lastname@example.org