Prostate cancer patient
Andy Phillips, 48, worked as an engineer in Kazakhstan Offshore in the Caspian Sea. He returned to the UK to enjoy four weeks leave with his wife, Carol, completely unaware that a trip to the GP to discuss a sty on his eye would lead to a diagnosis for prostate cancer, and that it would be a year before he returned to work.
Andy’s medical insurance with BUPA gave him prompt access to private cancer treatment including surgery and highly targeted radiotherapy, although he believes it was also his positivity and high levels of fitness that helped him cope with diagnosis and treatment.
“Life was good. I loved my career which enabled me to travel the world – including Sakhalin Island that is located in the far east of Russia where I worked for eight years on two different oil and gas platforms. More recently I had accepted a new position in Kazakhstan where I was enjoying a 28 days on/28 days off rotation as an instrument engineer working offshore in the Caspian Sea. I was just getting promoted to the position of maintenance superintendent where I would have been responsible for a team of approximately 60 engineers and technicians looking after the maintenance of the offshore facilities, when I was due 28 days at home.
As much as I loved my job, it was great to come home and spend time with my wife, and best friend, Carol. Just before I was due to return back to Kazakhstan, I went to my GP to discuss a sty that I’d had on my eye for about six weeks which was not clearing. Carol suggested I also mention that my peeing frequency had increased in the last four months. I don’t think I’d have even thought of saying anything if Carol hadn’t mentioned it – I didn’t think it was a problem; it was just something that happened as you got older.
However, my GP – who was not interested in the sty - was concerned with my increased peeing frequency even though I was only 48 years old. I had two PSA blood tests over a two week period. Both were 10.8 which confirmed a higher than normal reading so he arranged a visit the following day to a specialist team over at The Park Hospital in Nottingham.
Even then, I didn’t think it would be anything serious because of my age. I did some research but just expected to be told that I had an infection and would be given some antibiotics and would return back to work in Kazakhstan.
The consultant did a rectal examination of the prostate and was not happy with the findings so we walked around to the X-ray department and he performed a trans-rectal ultrasound and prostate biopsy that same evening.
I was originally going to return back to Kazakhstan the next day but was advised not to travel due to the risks involved with the biopsy, and would be seen in ten days with the results.
I was still expecting to be told it was just an infection. However, at the appointment it was confirmed that I had an aggressive prostate cancer, with a Gleason score of 9/10. It took some time to sink in, I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me. We only told close family at first, nobody could really believe it, as I was so fit and had no other symptoms.
The initial MRI scan showed that the cancer had spread into the pelvic area too – and I later found out it had also spread to my bladder. My initial concern was how long I had to live, and that I needed to make sure that Carol was financially secure should I die. It was difficult to accept that it was happening to me, and during the next two weeks in particular it was very difficult for both myself and Carol emotionally.
After that, I took the engineer’s approach and started setting tasks and targets to get even fitter to give me the best chance to defeat the cancer. I also wanted to be strong for Carol.
The good news from further scans was that the cancer was not in my bones or lymph system. I was under two specialist consultants who both agreed that, as I was young and fit, they would basically throw everything but the kitchen sink at me. This has included a radical prostatectomy, hormone treatment and a seven week radiotherapy course.
All went well following my surgery, and because of my hard work with the physio and coming off the morphine pain control very quickly I was discharged early. My consultant was really impressed with all the hard work and determination that I had put in on the initial road to recovery. So I got back home and started the recovery process which included retraining my bladder and pelvic floor… all good fun!
I think my general fitness helped my recovery. I’ve worked on many platforms across the world and there is always a good gym to use, so I’d be up most mornings 4am to do an hour of aerobic activities before the start of each day. At home I run with the dogs and we having spinning bikes in the house.
My hormone treatment was started immediately after the operation, and I immediately started getting fit again six weeks after the operation which included running and spinning ready for the final phase of the treatment.
Carol was brilliant and I would have been lost without her strength and nursing experience. She was really impressed how I worked hard to fight and recover from this, although I didn’t get any sympathy from her about my sore nipples and the hot flushes… apparently women have been living with this for ages. All she said was ‘Now you know what it feels like’!
I met with the Genesis Care radiography team who explained the particular type of radiotherapy they provided. I had MRI & CT scans as well as three small dots tattooed which would be used for alignment on the treatment bed.
My seven weeks of radiotherapy was split into 33 segments, so I had to travel a 60-mile round trip every morning from Lincoln to Nottingham to have the radiotherapy. The journey took three hours a day and I totted up over 2000 miles, but it was worth it as the team over at Nottingham were excellent. What I found really strange was the following Monday morning after the completion of the radiotherapy - in some ways I felt alone as I no longer had the comfort of the team treating me.
I’d been warned about possible side effects of the radiotherapy, but pleased to say I didn’t have anything serious or feel any tiredness at all. I needed some medication and steroid cream as I was having complex extended treatment, but I carried on doing plenty of exercise every day. Even on the final day of radiotherapy I was able to do a sixty-minute spinning session that evening.
The whole experience has been hard for Carol and me, and we have both had our moments. The last year was not in our master plan, but unfortunately we had to accept that this nightmare was real.
Having said that, things are looking very positive at the moment. After a holiday to the USA, I returned to have a PSA blood test which came back at 0.02 - a great result considering the initial scoring and staging of the cancer. At the present time no further treatment is planned, just a four-monthly PSA test.
Unfortunately after being classed as long term sick after 16 weeks I was terminated from my job but I had full support from my employer who set up a temporary contract so that I could work from home while going through all the treatment. I am now pleased to say that I am just going through the process of re-joining the company again and have been offered the position of the maintenance superintendent again. The contract will be again in Kazakhstan on a 28/28 rotation for at least four years.
The last twelve months have been hard but the most important things that I have learnt is that you are never alone when fighting cancer. My family were always there for me and the complete team at Nottingham have treated me as an individual and not just as a patient. You still have to have the courage and be prepared to take the fight head on. For myself keeping as fit as I could through the complete eleven months has made the treatment so much easier.
I have now started to training for triathlons, taking swimming lessons and Carol has bought me a top of the range road bike for my birthday. My objective is to take part in and complete an Iron Man event raising money for cancer research in the coming years.
Carol and I always had a really good healthy diet but this has now been enhanced after attending some workshops about digestion and nutrition at the cancer centre. So keeping fit and eating all the right foods are going to give me the best chance of winning the battle against cancer.
All my investigations and treatment were covered by BUPA which has been great; everything was carried out quickly and systematically, and I didn’t have to wait for anything. Also the whole Genesis Care team over in The Park Cancer Centre have been great. I’m thankful to the complete team in achieving such a great result; words cannot express my gratitude in the treatment, planning and care.
People being diagnosed with cancer react in different ways, some just want to hide in the corner and others want to talk about it. I tackled it by being positive and remaining as fit as possible, and it’s worked for me. As the days, weeks and years roll on the better the chance that I will die from something else becomes greater.
I see this as just a twelve-month blip in our lives. I’ve had the best treatment possible, and am looking forward to retirement within five years and then continue to enjoy a long and happy life with Carol.”