Health: Cancer sufferers lend each other support

George Thomson, left, and Martin Clark have shared their experiences. Picture: Toby Williams
George Thomson, left, and Martin Clark have shared their experiences. Picture: Toby Williams
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WHEN George Thomson meets up with former top flight SFA ref Martin Clark, it could be easily assumed that talk would mostly be about the latest football news.

Or perhaps with both of them regulars on the golf course, chat might turn to wonder shots, the last agonising round or updates from the 19th hole.

The truth is that the pair are more likely to be chatting about something much more personal – and it’s a “men only” conversation that George hopes is helping him win the biggest challenge of his life.

The two have formed a unique cancer buddy friendship, with Martin, who has already battled through prostate cancer, passing on his knowledge of the condition and vital “been there, seen it, done it” support to recently diagnosed George.

And there’s no subject or question, whether it’s fine detail about delicate examinations, bathroom business or the potential side effects of treatment on precious manhood, that’s off 
limits.

It’s a groundbreaking good-to-talk approach to smashing down barriers around a devastatingly common cancer which affects one in 12 Scots and is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the UK.

At its heart is the hope that by learning to talk through their deepest fears and discussing often “unmentionable” elements of health, men can not only choose the best approach to fighting the condition but avoid the risk of dying from embarrassment.

The cancer buddy scheme has been launched by Edinburgh and Lothian Prostate Cancer Support (ELPCS) amid concern that the traditional stiff upper lip approach to dealing with a crisis meant many men were not failing to receive enough help and 
support for their cancer fight.

Now volunteers who have already undergone various forms of treatment have been given training so they can pass on their own personal experiences to new patients, helping them find their way through the various treatment options and providing a crutch when they need someone to chat to about their deepest fears.

According to George, 61, having former SFA referee Martin as a cancer buddy helped him sieve through often complicated and confusing medical detail that frequently left his mind reeling.

“There was so much to take in,” says George, who lives with wife Betty, 62, in Port Seton. “I was trying to get my head around four or five different treatment options, one doctor wanted surgery, another wanted to do something else, there were side effects to think about, it was all a bit overwhelming.”

He learned he had prostate cancer in December after visiting his GP with niggling concerns about the frequency he was having to visit the bathroom during the night. An internal examination revealed some swelling – later a biopsy confirmed his fears.

Luckily his cancer has been spotted at an early stage giving him various options of either adopting a “wait and see” approach where he’d undergo regular monitoring to watch for any changes before acting, 
radiotherapy or surgery.

All that was confusing enough, but he was also mindful of his own future – having lost both his parents to different types of cancer months apart in 1978, there was the obvious nagging fear of what might happen to him, and a natural instinct to try to protect his family from worry.

“My wife’s reaction was to just get it cut out, to have the surgery and get rid of it. But I was worried about side effects – the prostate controls things like the water works and sperm and I didn’t want to trade one problem for 
another,” says George.

He considered brachytherapy, where radiotherapy in the form of seeds is placed into the prostate. While it can involve just one or two hospital trips, some men are concerned by side effects that can include erection problems, difficulty passing urine and rectal bleeding.

And his head was spinning before he decided to opt for a programme of “active surveillance” which involves regular monitoring to assess the 
cancer’s state before acting.

According to Martin, who was on a similar monitoring programme for five years before having brachytherapy two years ago, the buddies’ role is not to tell people what to do, but to provide help and support if needed. “I’ve had a few calls asking what I think they should do, all I can say is what my personal experience was and how it’s affected me.

“It’s amazing how much comfort people get from talking to someone who’s been through it, whether it’s over the phone or in one of the superb group meetings that take place at Maggie’s,” adds Martin, now Manager of the Association of SFA 
Referees for Edinburgh and District.

“A lot of men find it hard to talk about all this to their families.

“The fact is that this cancer is usually very slow and if you’re going to have cancer, it’s probably better to have this one than some others. But men don’t broadcast enough what it’s about and there’s not enough notice taken of it.”

Prostate cancer accounts for around seven per cent of all cancer deaths and more than 90 per cent of deaths are in the over-65 age group. However medical advances mean it can be kept under control if caught quickly enough.

According to ELPCS buddies’ coordinator Neil Borthwick, 66, of Blackhall, who had prostate cancer surgery nine years ago, the programme is helping men who might otherwise face a lonely battle against cancer.

“We have 22 buddies who have all undergone training and have experience of different treatments and different stages. Their role is not to give medical advice, but to pass on 
personal experience.

“Women are great at talking about their health, but men try to be macho and pretend there’s nothing wrong with them,” he adds.

“Men need to change and start talking more.”

n For details of the prostate cancer buddy scheme and information about the condition, go to ELPCS website, www.elprostatecancersupport.co.uk, ring 0131 208 3067 or for West Lothian, call 01506 845981.

sdick@edinburghnews.com

Killer claims hundreds of lives a year

THE prostate is a small male gland about the size of a walnut and is key to producing sperm.

A number of hormones

control the gland’s growth

and function, including testosterone.

As men age, the prostate can become enlarged, causing problems with the outflow of urine from the bladder.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in Scotland. Around 850 Scots die from prostate cancer every year.

Symptoms include a need to pass urine more often, blood in the urine, painful urination, erectile dysfunction and a frequent urgent need to urinate.

However, sometimes there are no obvious symptoms.

Tests for it can include a digital rectal examination and blood tests, bone scan and biopsy.

The cancer is then given a grade known as a Gleason Score which help predict prognosis and plan treatment.

Because it is a slow progressing cancer, there are various options for treatment – some patients prefer to undergo regular monitoring to check whether the cancer shows signs of progressing before undergoing more intense intervention such as radiotherapy or surgery.

Last year, NHS Lothian launched a new trial initiative to help men through early stages of diagnosis at the Western General Hospital, with patients receiving a CD recording of their consultation to help them understand the information they receive and to make decisions about their treatment.

NEW LEUKAEMIA DRUG PROVIDES FRESH HOPE

A NEW leukaemia drug could give “hope” to many patients who previously had nowhere left to turn, a blood cancer charity said.

Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research said ­obinutuzumab could give patients “effective, life-prolonging treatment”.

The drug appears to be “more effective” than any other monoclonal antibody – a medication which harnesses the body’s own immune system to target cancer cells – which is currently used alongside chemotherapy to treat chronic lymphocytic ­leukaemia (CLL), the ­charity said.

Manufacturers Roche say that the drug, also known as GA101, can “reduce the risk of cancer worsening or death by up to 86 per cent” when used with chemotherapy compared to just having chemo for patients with CLL.

BABY BOOTIES MADE FROM BREAST MILK

TINY baby booties made from donated breast milk have been created by ­British designers.

Simple kitchen ­equipment was used to transform the protein in the milk into a hard plastic-type material before being moulded into the booties.

They cannot be worn, but were created using a mother’s donation to promote World Breast Milk Donation Day this Sunday.

The inch-long booties were created by Nick Gant and Tanya Dean, both lecturers at the University of Brighton in East Sussex, who have made shoes from a range of other ­unusual waste materials.

WHY WOMEN LIVE LONGER THAN MEN

WOMEN live longer than men partly because their immune systems age more slowly, a study suggests.

As their body defences weaken with time, the increasing susceptibility of men to disease shortens their lives, it is claimed.

Life expectancy in the UK is 79 years for men and 82 for women, ­according to the World Health Organisation.

In Japan, where the research took place, the gap is wider.

There, the average lifespan of men is the same as in the UK, but women live to 85.5.

The study involved examining blood samples from 356 healthy men and women aged between the ages of 20 and 90 and looked at the levels of white blood cells in each subject.