Goodbye to you, my trusty friend.
It was a Thursday morning in July. We set off from home at 4:30 AM, but we weren't going to an airport this time; that’s the only reason we would normally both be up at this time. We were heading into London to check into the admissions suite at St. George's Hospital.
To be blunt, earlier that year I had changes to my penis resulting in pain and discomfort. The tissues had started to harden and I would get a shooting pain. I went to the general practitioner and asked if it was possible that I had cancer. He advised that I had an infection and needed antibiotics and a circumcision. I was to be referred to the urologist at the local hospital, given some antibiotics, and sent on my merry way.
But the symptoms steadily got worse. The tissue hardening started to spread down the shaft (which I now know was the cancer tumour growing), the pain became worse, and I was losing blood. After 12 weeks I got to see the urologist who, without any hesitation, said I needed to see a specialist in London because I had cancer.
This was the start of a very fast moving chain of events that have ultimately saved my life.
"So, David, we have good news and not-so-good news," the doctor said. "The good news is your main organs appear to be unaffected by cancer, but the bad news is that we are going to have to amputate your penis.”
Although my wife and I knew it was cancer, we were not really prepared for that. My initial response was, quite simply, "Do what you need to do to save my life…but, please, no catheter bag." Four hours later, I was in surgery. I never really gave it another thought – I was more worried about the anaesthetic and pain than losing my penis. What followed the initial surgery was a merry-go-round of more surgery, chemotherapy, scans, radiotherapy, more scans, infections, trips to A&E, and sickness and pain, both physical and mental.
So there I was. It was 2014 and I had stage IV penile cancer. I had four hours to contemplate the amputation of my penis before it actually happened. Despite the odds being less than favourable, I am here today, despite a penectomy, node dissection, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. So, really, I should have felt empowered and full of life.
That's not how I felt.
Physically, I was doing well, but cancer is not all about the physical treatment. The psychological damage done to you is huge and that journey was just beginning. A few months after treatment finished, I crashed... big time. Work was a chore, fatigue was ever present, I had no social inclination at all, and generally felt really bad about myself. I was looking for my old life but could not find it -- it was gone. I was lost. I needed help.
It took me nearly a year before I could fathom the mental strength to reach out to support groups. I told myself: they aren't for me, they are for sick people. I continued to believe that the cancer wasn't real. But as I started to listen to other stories of cancer survivors in disbelief and sadness, I realised that I was one of the less-unfortunate ones.Through the Health in Mind website, I was picked up by a specialist who gave me the support I needed. With his help I slowly started to embrace the new one and learn the things that have now become important in this "after cancer" life.
I have made some new friends from around the globe, some in very similar positions to myself. Cancer can be a very lonely place, so to have people that I can draw on and share experiences with is invaluable. Now, I am slowly drawing strength from discussions with others and hoping that by joining in, I may help another sufferer on his own journey. I have found that I am not alone and have actually contributed to awareness efforts for this condition globally. As you can imagine, it is often not diagnosed early enough but with many cancers, early diagnosis leads to far better result and less dramatic surgery.
I am now just past the third anniversary of my penectomy -- three years without my "little friend." People say, "I bet it has been a long few years," but honestly, it does not feel that way. Despite the huge ordeal we have been through and the toughest of tough recoveries, three years actually seem to have gone by fairly quickly. This journey has taken me to places I really did not expect to be, especially as a fairly fit and healthy, forty-something years old -- but I have grown in ways that I never could have imagined the "old me" going alongside some of the bravest men I have ever known.
We may not be many, but we are here, and together we can be stronger.
Did you have a body-altering surgery you didn't think you could survive? Share your experience in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of Juil Yoon