Trevor Laffan: What I have learned from my brush with prostate cancer

In his weekly column Trevor Laffan reflects on his brush with cancer and urges people to visit their GP once a year and not wait for a problem
Trevor Laffan: What I have learned from my brush with prostate cancer

RAISING AWARENESS: Trevor Laffan is helping raise awareness of the importance of prostate cancer checks.

I WROTE a piece a few months ago about my brush with prostate cancer and, as you can imagine, I was happy to see the back of 2018.

On the positive side, though, the response to that article was enormous and I know a couple of guys who had themselves checked as a result of reading it, so that’s good.

The whole point of the exercise was to advise as many as possible about the importance of having their PSA checked and the need to be proactive where their health is concerned.

There’s no point in waiting for symptoms because they might never appear, and that’s important to remember. Just ask John Wall.

He is a 48-year-old air traffic controller and father-of-three from Quin, Co Clare, and a couple of years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and, unfortunately for him, it has become a terminal illness.

He has been very active on social media over the last 12 months or so, highlighting the need for men to get themselves checked.

It’s been two years since his diagnosis and he says that, while it is a terminal diagnosis for him, it could have been avoided quite easily if he had had the sense to have a simple blood test annually.

He should have had his PSA checked and he feels that all 30-something males out there should be visiting their GP once a year.

John’s advice is not to wait: “More often than not, we wait for a problem rather than pre-empting one before we make that visit. Don’t make the same mistake I did, it could save your life.”

After I had my own surgery, my surgeon confirmed to me that we were right to move when we did because the cancer was beginning to migrate beyond the prostate.

That was an endorsement of my decision to take matters into my own hands when faced with the prospect of delays and becoming part of the HSE statistics.

There were 700,000 people on hospital waiting lists at that time and I was one of those. I was in a hurry to get things moving but I didn’t get that sense of urgency from the system I was stuck in.

Looking back on it now, if I had adopted that same laidback approach that I encountered, I could very well have ended up in serious trouble and I’ll give you one example.

After receiving my diagnosis, I was advised to have an isotope bone scan to determine if the cancer had spread beyond the prostate gland.

That was in the middle of August and I was given a date for this scan in the CUH for November 5. Add on another few weeks to get the result of that and I was facing a wait of about three months.

When I questioned the reason for this delay, I was told that it was due to a large queue in the CUH.

I wasn’t prepared to wait that long, so I went to the Bon Secours Hospital and had it done within a week.

When I asked what kind of a waiting list they had in the Bons for this procedure, they told me they had none.

The obvious question, then is, why wasn’t I advised that this test was available at a different hospital?

It would have made sense to accommodate those of us with private health insurance in a hospital where there is no queue and remove us from the waiting list in the CUH to shorten the wait there for others.

It’s also quite possible that there may have been patients in the public system in the CUH who would have been willing to pay for the bone test privately if they had been given the option.

They might gladly have taken the opportunity to be seen earlier at a cost of about €380 and this would have reduced the queue in the CUH even more.

In the lead up to the surgery, I felt like a very small cog in an enormous wheel. I felt largely invisible and I got no sense of urgency.

The wheel was turning very slowly and, at times, it seemed to me that the payments I was making along the way were more of a priority than my welfare.

I was beginning to question the value of early detection and intervention.

The medical advice encourages us to check ourselves for changes in our body and to contact a doctor if we notice something different, so I was a little confused when I seemed to be the only one trying to speed things up. That’s not a reflection on the medical staff on the front-line who are trying to do the impossible, but it is a damning indictment on those responsible for the administration of this broken health system.

Nursing is a vocation and those people are fighting hard to keep the system afloat.

My patience eventually ran out and I contacted the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin.

From that point on, I felt I was being looked after and events moved quickly after that. That’s how the system should work for everyone, but we all know it doesn’t.

The most important lesson I’ve learned, is not to wait for symptoms to occur because they don’t always appear. That can’t be said often enough.

And don’t panic if you receive a diagnosis of prostate cancer. It’s not nice to hear, but it’s not the end of the world either; it’s a common complaint in men and is, usually, very treatable.

While the surgical procedure might be a little uncomfortable, it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Patient experiences vary, and recoveries are different for everyone, but anyone faced with the prospect of surgery should stay positive.

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