John Biggs was 65 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The consultant’s words hit him hard.
“It was almost as if it wasn’t me, he was talking to someone else, can’t be me.”
His voice tinged with emotion, John vividly elaborates on that devastating moment.
“It’s like you’ve been stabbed in the chest and you’re just numbed.”
En-route back home with his wife Angie, John stopped to sink a couple of pints. Later he would go out for a walk with his dogs, stopping to sit on a park bench. Here, in Dorset, on this fairly sunny winter’s day, the gravity of his situation would overwhelm him.
“I just stared at the scenery and the nature and just tears came to my eyes and I just more or less broke down, staring at the trees and greenery.”
Yet, it was at that moment when John’s resolve hardened.
He realised he must get treatment before the cancer killed him.
A keen gardener and yoga enthusiast, John’s cancer was discovered by chance, just after Christmas 2015. A blood test for a heart complaint threw up alarmingly high prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels – an indicator of possible prostate cancer.
Remembering his ‘all-clear’ from prostate cancer a few years ago, John chose to ignore his doctor, who apparently wanted him to focus on his heart rather than more prostate cancer tests.
A biopsy and MRI scan followed.
The cancer was aggressive.
Fearing it would spread to his lymph glands, John chose initially to have High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) treatment at a private hospital in Southampton. An invasive and relatively new treatment, HIFU is usually used when the cancer has not spread beyond the prostate.
John’s decision would change though after hearing his consultant’s words, ones he remembers well.
“Look I’m not happy about the other side of this MRI scan. On the other side of the prostate we can’t actually see if there’s any tumours there but we know there’s tumours on one side. My advice to you is to have a full prostatectomy.”
After a second MRI scan revealed more tumours, John heeded the medical advice. His doctor removed the lymph nodes too, as a precautionary measure.
A year on, the sense of a weight lifting can be felt in John’s words as he thinks back to the ‘all- clear’ which followed that momentous decision.
“I was absolutely totally relieved by that point. But thank God I had the full prostatectomy because otherwise I could have been in serious trouble.”
The whole experience has profoundly changed him.
John is dedicating his twilight years to raising awareness of a disease he describes as a ‘silent killer’. Around 40,000 men are diagnosed in England alone each year according to Prostate Cancer UK, a charity now very close to his heart.
Scathing of his and man’s blasé approach to the disease (‘it’ll never happen to me’), John only really learnt about the prostate as his journey began. He was not the only one in the dark though.
“One man thought his prostate was in his neck, another man thought his prostate was under his armpit. Men are totally naïve. There are also other men who have got the symptoms of prostate cancer and unbelievably have got prostate cancer and won’t do anything about it and are just living with it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”
John puts this lack of willingness to get treatment down to fear and men not being as au-fait with their bodies as the fairer sex.
“It’s a masculine thing, you don’t want to admit there’s something wrong with you and go to the doctor and have tests, the side effects involved and all the rest of it. It’s a feeling of total cowardice on men’s behalf. They’re not used to having intrusive tests and they’re frightened.”
One scene he describes is startling.
“I’ve actually seen grown men run out of the wards because they won’t have some of the tests done.”
Turning from the challenge was not for John though, mainly due to his positive thinking and desire to know what was happening to his body. His glass half full outlook helped greatly when dealing with the side effects of his treatment. Grappling with a life far from the ‘free and easy’ one he knew, incontinence and its impact on his sex life has been difficult.
But, his journey has taken him to a different space and, in his reflections, there could just be a lesson for us all.
“You look at life completely different. All the small things in life that became really big issues are now irrelevant. It’s more about people and your existence and making the most of your life because you’ve been given a second chance almost. Also, because you’ve been spared you have a feeling of relief but also want to put something back to help other people.”
So, to putting that something back.
A musical man, John penned an album called, ‘angels‘ and set about selling it to family and friends. So far he’s raised over £500. He hopes to generate £2000 for Prostate Cancer UK to help with the development of a traffic light system for assessing a man’s risk of getting prostate cancer. It’s hoped the test will be more effective than the current PSA one.
His album, a mixture of ballads and observations on modern life, took over four months to write. Remarkably though, John recorded it in just four hours, whilst battling incontinence. Guitar in hand, he’s been out performing at the likes of his local church, a therapy of sorts.
Whilst warmed by the good reception, ultimately John wants men to hear his plea; to take action if anything unusual occurs, like needing to urinate more often.
“The tests are really nothing compared with what leaving it and doing nothing about it is.”
John’s desire to help others has only been intensified through his experience.
He thinks of himself as kind hearted and with these parting thoughts, who could argue?
“Whilst you’re on this earth if you can make a difference to someone else’s life by supporting them, helping them directly or doing what you can then you’ve made a difference and I think that’s incredibly important to justify your existence of survival.”
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