Members of the Pink Panthers male cancer support group have spoken of their own experiences of diagnosis and treatment in a bid to persuade other men to get checked if they have any concerns.
One of the men has been treated for bowel cancer, while the other has a potentially life-threatening rare blood condition, the necessary treatment for which raises the likelihood of him contracting leukaemia in the future.
Derry man James ‘Banty’ Nash is co-chair of the Pink Ladies and Pink Panthers and was diagnosed with the incurable blood condition eight years ago. Mr Nash’s wife Margaret passed away 20 months ago from cancer.
Speaking about his own experience of being diagnosed, Mr Nash, who is in his 60s, said: “It was actually through an accident. I was playing a charity football match on Father’s Day for the Beechtree Bar, it was the married men versus the single men. Everybody decided that I would be a referee. Very quickly into the match there was a guy who did not like a decision I had given so he lifted the ball and kicked the ball and let fly at me. I put my hand up to protect my glasses and my face and it broke my finger.
“Being a man, I did the manly thing and taped the thing up, but it began to swell and swell and swell. Two weeks later, nothing was happening, so I decided then to go on to the doctor. I went along to the doctor and went into him and he said ‘Who are you?’ because I’d never seen him. I explained that I was registered with the practice, it was just that I hadn’t been in to see a doctor in many, many years.
“I showed him the finger. He said, ‘Now that I know who you are, I’ll get you in for a full MOT’. So I went in the next day and got the full MOT, got bloods done. It was a Friday. He phoned me up on the Monday and said: ‘I would like you to come up and see me.’
“I went up and seen him and he said, ‘Do you know anything about platelets? And jokingly I said to him, ‘Aye mini-saucers’. I hadn’t a clue what it was. And he explained to me, and said I would have to go along and see one of the consultants in Altnagelvin Hospital who is attached to the Haematology ward.”
James and his wife Margaret spent a full day at the hospital waiting to speak with the consultant. Mr Nash recalls: “Many’s a time I felt like getting up and walking out. I said, ‘you know for a broken finger it’s not worth it’. The doctor came out later and said he was trying to put a few things in place, that’s why it was taking so long. And he handed me a few bits of material and said I’ll be with you shortly. I took it and looked and it was all about cancer. I thought it was just reading material to pass the time and handed it to the wife.
“Then he called me and the wife in and one of the senior nurses and the first thing he said was ‘I’ve good news for you, it’s not cancer’. The minute he mentioned that, my jaw just dropped. It was as if my world fell apart. I said, ‘what are you talking about cancer, it’s my big finger?’”
Mr Nash had to then undergo a lumber puncture and was diagnosed with the rare condition positive essential thrombocytosis. “It’s an incurable but treatable,” he said. “The only downside to that was the medication. The longer I am on that the greater the risk of leukaemia. It’s a catch 22 situation. If I don’t take the tablets I’m going to snuff it.”
Mr Nash said that men shouldn’t be afraid to go and get checked out. “Everybody knows their own body,” he said. “If you see changes, notice changes then the best thing to do is go along, see your doctor ASAP.”
Meanwhile, another Derry man who was diagnosed with bowel cancer said he could have been dead and buried but for a remark he made to a doctor. The man, also in his 60s, said he had thought he had haemorrhoids but it turned out to be skin tags and had undergone a procedure to get them removed.
“I went back two months later for the results and the doctor said everything was OK, there was no problem and he asked me how did I feel. So I said I felt grand but, said ‘I have a wee slight problem, I still have a wee bit of bleeding from my back passage’.
He said, ‘Look, I’ll tell you what we’ll do, just to make sure everything is OK, I’ll send you for a colonoscopy.’ That’s the camera. I got that and after they did it they found the tumour. They took a biopsy there and then and they told me it was definitely was cancerous.”
The man said it was “a very big shock” both for himself and for his wife, who had accompanied him to the appointment. “I went through my operation at the beginning of June and they removed part of my bowel,” he said, adding that thankfully, it has now been over two years since his treatment ended and he was told his latest tests are clear.
“I was fit as a fiddle before this and if I hadn’t mentioned about the blood that day I could have been dead, I could have been buried up in the City Cemetery by now.
“Cancer in the old days was a bad word and nobody liked talking about it. But cancer now with all the improvements is very different, and Altnagelvin now is one of the most advanced cancer units in Europe with the new North West Cancer Centre.
“It’s thanks to the Pink Ladies, Maureen Collins and Michelle McLaren who run the Pink Ladies, and the Pink Panthers and Margaret Cunningham, who runs the Pink Panthers, that so many have been helped. If everybody ever wants any help, the three of them are willing to help you, whatever problems it is.”
The man said the Pink Panthers has been a major help to him. “We meet the last Thursday of every month, and it’s all different people who all have been through the various stages of cancer.
“People shouldn’t be afraid to talk about cancer anymore. It’s a terrible thing to go through alone. Through the help you get from Pink Ladies and Pink Panthers it makes you more relaxed. It’s better talking to somebody about it than holding it back. If you hold it back you’ll go into a depression and you’ll make yourself worse worrying. You are better getting it out into the open, talk about it freely and don’t be embarrassed.
“I always tell people, it doesn’t matter if you believe nothing is wrong with you, if you have any suspicion whatsoever go and see a doctor. If I hadn’t gone and mentioned to my doctor what was happening to me I could be lying in the City Cemetery now. You are better safe and sorry, and it could save your life.”