Friday, 30 July 2010


The day after I left the hospital I was ready to tell more people. I sent a, in hindsight, silly text to a bunch of my closest friends: ‘Hi. I was admitted to hospital yesterday. I’m okay but can you give me a call at some point?’ Too vague. Too much potential to worry. But how do you broach that sort of news without going into it in something as flippant as a text? The flurry of concerned answer phone messages I got as I took equally concerned calls made me realise I probably could have phrased it a little better.

The different reactions of each close friend made me realise why I have each one of them in my life: Maz’s stern concern, Gary’s gentle consoling, Emma’s laidback look on the bright side, Julia’s dry humour – each one reassured me in a different way.

It took me a good two weeks to feel recovered from the operation. I spent a full week at home. People visited, each purveying their curiously different reactions to my predicament. Maz was all fussing and frowning, dropping work for the afternoon to come and sit with me. She wouldn’t let me do anything, which was sweet and frustrating at the same time. It was probably good not to be getting up and down, but at the same time I didn’t feel like an invalid. I didn’t feel sick or injured enough to be waited on. I still felt normal.

Four days after the op I was due to go to the nurse at my GP’s so she could check on my stitches. I got a taxi there with a driver whose initial concern at my easing myself into the car didn’t stretch to his driving carefully. Instead he shouted at people, drove around waiting cars, and seemed intent on getting me to the doctor’s as quickly as possible, which was fun going over the sleeping policemen.

My scar was fine. But the nurse’s supply of bandages was less healthy. She seemed reluctant to give me any, pleading poverty. I managed to squeeze one out of her. My pharmacist boyfriend would have to get me the rest. Welcome to down side of the NHS.

I got the bus back to Clapham Common and walked the rest, which was silly. I got home and passed out for a bit. I managed to get up and go and meet Em for lunch. Very little walking this time but it was still tiring. The next night I headed over to Gary and Maz’s, having been going a bit stir-crazy looking at the same walls and windows for so long.

It was a busy weekend really. Jen and her partner Paul took Mark and I for a drive out to some National Trust property. It was a pleasant distraction. I was due to attend my friend Sean’s birthday gathering at a pub that afternoon. He’d texted me the night before telling me he’d cut my balls off if I didn’t come. I texted back saying that was funnier than he realised.

An awkward moment at the pub followed with Sean asking me questions in front of one of his friends. It took him too long to realise my saying little meant it was a conversation for another time, but eventually he realised.

A week in and I’d forgotten how shocking the news is to unexpecting ears. As I went back to work I was greeted with a mixture of expressions when I talked about it. The sympathetic ones I could take, but the stunned and uncomfortable ones were hard to bear. It fell to me to make them feel better, which seems unfair. But when people asked I couldn’t be bothered to talk around it, and lying wasn’t really an option. So I fessed up, and watched curiously to see what reaction I got.

Going back to work wasn’t easy, but it was easier than doing nothing at home. I hobbled onto the Tube at a much slower pace than the crowds around me. It was nice to be one of the slow ones for a change, I felt a whole lot less stressed. I hobbled around at work as well, easing myself in and out of my chair. But slowly I began to walk more freely, and slowly I began to take less pain killers. I’d stopped the dihydrocodeine pretty quickly – they made me constipated. But the others I’d carried on, easing off at one point only to go back to my full regime as I started to feel the pain.

My first few days back at work were fairly uncomfortable. I couldn’t find the right position to sit on the office chair. Eventually I found slouching was good, broken up with periods sitting up straight. My boss asked me how I felt at one point. I explained my slouching and sitting up straight routine to her. She just emailed back with a picture of a blow-up ring. I like working there.

But my brush with cancer is far from over. The operation was just the beginning. The doctors of Guy’s have a little bit more treatment up their white sleeves for me.

Monday, 26 July 2010


I woke up surrounded by big bosom-y black women. There may have been six, there may have been just two, but they exuded enough love and care to make me feel surrounded and fussed over and looked after. Or maybe I was still high.

“Where am I?” I slurred. They told me I was in the recovery room. Then it hit me: a gut-wrenching tidal wave of emotions. The events of the past 12 hours overwhelmed me and I started sobbing. Tears drained down my cheeks and my chest heaved with every sob. The nurses did some more bustling: “What’s wrong dear? Are you in pain?” “No,” I managed to say, “it’s just been a really long day.”

I don’t remember much after this. Apparently I called Mark once I was back on the ward. I slurred at him as I once again railed against the bastard registrar. Then I sunk into more sleep.

The next day there was pain and pills. They had gone in via the old scar from my previous operations and it was now longer. It was held together by stitches that would dissolve – which was a relief. I remembered having to have my stitches taken out and it wasn’t pleasant. The registrar came to see me at one point, to check out his handiwork and let me know how the operation went. I said little, watching him with suspicion and waiting for his insensitivity to jumpstart my counter-attack. But he was fine, a lot less boisterous this time, and he spent only a little time with me.

The pills were a cocktail of pain killers, and not as exciting as you may imagine: two paracetamol, one ibuprofen and (the only exotic one) one dihydrocodeine. Generally I was left alone by the nurses to sleep and speak to the next batch of people I thought I should tell.

My friend Jen texted me first thing to ask what time she should arrive for dinner at mine that night. I called straight back, there would be no dinner tonight. She was great as always and asked if I wanted to tell our friends Su and Yuki or get her to do it. I was glad she could do it for me. Already it was a hard conversation to have. But my family handled it all so well. I really experienced the benefit of having two parents who worked in the medical profession. They were concerned, consoling, but practical at the same. Then there were my sisters, with their sentimental pep talks; Libby in particular had a reassuringly no-nonsense but caring approach that comes from her own training as a nurse.

But the hospital wasn’t done with me yet. I couldn’t spend all day chatting on the phone and reading my book (Day of the Triffids, if you must know). They wanted me to have a CT scan, to check my innards for any signs of cancer there. They asked me if I could walk down. I’d hobbled to the toilet okay so said I reckoned so. They reckoned not and got me a wheelchair and a porter. Which sounds quite nice but is actually quite weird when you’re used to being so independently mobile.
The scan staff made me drink a vile-tasting liquid which they’d tried to sweeten with lemon cordial. It didn’t really work. The liquid was supposed to dye your insides so they showed up when scanned. They told me it may make me feel nauseous. It did. After waiting around for an hour for the dye to pass through my body, they invited me in for my scan. I’d given up drinking the dye as it was becoming hard to keep down, but they told me I’d drunk enough.

The mixture of pain from walking and the dye in my stomach made me feel queasy and I began to retch. A nurse got me a bowl but the only thing that came out was spittle. I waited until my stomach had calmed down then slowly manoeuvred myself onto the scanner. I had to lie down with my feet through a large donut-shaped contraption. Another nurse then hooked me up to a drip, more dye apparently, and told me that when the scan started I may feel warmth inside my body, as well as some nausea and a tingling sensation. That sounded like a mixture of the pleasant with the unpleasant to me, so wasn’t sure whether to be nervous or not.

The nurses retreated to a safe distance and the scan started. An American female voice boomed from the donut as it moved up and down and around me, telling me when to breath and when not to. Then the tingling started. It was mainly in my belly, though went up to my chest and I got, yes, little waves of nausea, but I didn’t feel like I would vomit. The sensation of warmth was quite pleasant but none of it felt natural so I wouldn’t say it was an enjoyable sensation; just an interesting one to have experienced.

And that was it. The American female voice fell quiet. The nurses reappeared from their hiding place and helped me off the machine. Soon I was being trundled back to my ward to answer more phone calls.

I’d been told I would be discharged that day but there didn’t seem to be much rush to do it. Libby had decided to come down from Bath with Joseph, my four-month-old nephew, and her unofficial mother-in-law in tow. She arrived early in the afternoon and was immediately bouncing around the place, quite obviously as comfortable on a hospital ward as she would be in her living room. Joseph quickly garnered the unabashed attention of the nurses; understandably given they spend their day surrounded by sick old men. Their faces lit up with joy at the sight of him. He had a similar effect on me.

Mark came to pick me up as well and by mid-afternoon I found myself in a bar by London Bridge supping on a latte while Libby changed Joseph’s nappy next to me. I got the Tube to Clapham with no problem. Mark was jumpier than I, getting nervous any time someone went near me. We got a taxi home for the final leg, as a 10 minute walk, I thought, was just pushing my luck and physical tolerance. Before long Jen was on the doorstep with a bottle of organic white wine - “It’s organic; it’s definitely good for you” – and I could almost wonder whether it had actually happened. Until I moved. Then I knew it had.

Friday, 23 July 2010


I went into work as normal. I had no idea of what the day held for me. None at all. The morning went smoothly – the freelancer was a chilled out chick who had worked there before and kinda knew the ropes. I warned her I’d be off for a couple hours around lunchtime and not to worry, I’d be back before she knew it. She was watching YouTube at the time; she didn’t seem too fussed.

With my mind at rest that everything at work that could be done had been done, I set off for my scan. I wasn’t even worried. Not at first, anyway. The wait dragged me down a bit. I started to get worried about getting back to work. Eventually they called out a batch of names, mine included. A group of us, all men, went to sit in a corridor. For another really long period of time. I decided to give up on worrying about work. Instead my mind was leaning towards thinking about what the problem could be. Still I only got so far with considering cancer. I still didn’t know what to do with the thought once I’d had it: “So what if it’s cancer?” “Um…”

The doctor was a lady. Does this bother me, I thought? No, I decided, and shimmied my trousers down. A tube of cold gel, the thought that this was a bit weird, and a magic machine that can see through things later and the lady doctor and I are looking at my bollocks on a TV screen. It’s all a bit awkward because I’m sat forward looking back at the screen to my side, with my pants down, and her hand on my groin. She tells me I have a tumour. This makes things more awkward, mostly because I don’t really understand what she’s saying. Is she saying cancer? She’s not said cancer. But is she being polite? Easing me into the idea? No, she’s a doctor, she’d just say. But does she mean cancer? What does she mean, a tumour?

My first question: “What caused it?” That’s the one question they can’t answer. Another lady doctor came in to have a look, a second opinion if you will. Yes, definitely a tumour. But what does that mean, I kept thinking. The first lady doctor started talking about Lance Armstrong. So it is cancer then, I thought. But still I didn’t say it out loud. It never occurred to me to actually ask.

Then the big news: I was going to need an operation. “When?” I asked. “Today,” was the reply. “But I have to get back to work,” I said. “I’m afraid you’re not going back to work today,” was the reply.

Instead I was sent to another hospital, one with a urology department that could have a look at my tumour and decide what it was; instead I was going to be admitted to that hospital for an operation to have the tumour, whatever kind it was, taken out; instead I was going to have to call my scary boss and tell him I wasn’t coming back in that day.

Waiting for the shuttle bus to take me to the other hospital, I call people. My friend Steve who I work with is stunned. He says he’s happy to cover for me. My boyfriend is not so stunned – he’s been the only one to have any warning that this was coming. My sister is stunned. My Dad is reasonable and stoically tells me to get it out, quick smart. My scary boss is immediately supportive and tells me not to worry about work, just go and get myself sorted. Incredible. That’s enough for now. There are only so many times you can have that conversation in one go.

But still it wasn’t cancer. It was a ‘tumour’, and would remain so until I was told otherwise. The nice, though very green, Japanese doctor at the urology clinic told me otherwise. It was testicular cancer. I texted Mark afterwards: “I literally have testicular cancer. Brilliant.” I’m glad I wasn’t the one receiving that text.

I was sat there once again with my trousers round my ankles, my dick in my hand and a stranger rubbing cold gel into my balls with a magic machine that can see through things. “Do you want to have a look?” asked the Japanese doctor. Of course. He told me most people don’t want to, which struck me as strange. Why wouldn’t you? We compared bollocks – each of mine, I mean, not mine with his. One looked like a textbook drawing of a testicle. The other one looked like, well, Canada. He pointed out the tiny bit of testicle that remained amongst the tumour – kind of where Hudson Bay is – and told me it wasn’t worth saving. What a ridiculous thought – that someone could be so insecure in their manhood that they would want that tiny bit of testicle saved in order to claim in some way that they still had two testicles. Silly.

There was an awkward moment where I’m cleaning the gel off my balls. I could have spent hours doing it, it’s clingy stuff. We sat down. He looked at me expectantly. I got that a lot over the next few days, that expectant look. That searching for a reaction. What was I supposed to do? Cry? Get angry? Go into denial? All of the above? I didn’t feel like any of that was necessary or justified.

Things happened very quickly after this. I was admitted and found myself in one of those backless gowns, though mine was more of a wraparound affair. There was a nice moment with the ward nurse where I stupidly asked if it was okay to wear my pants underneath. “Are they nice cotton ones?” she frowned. I nodded, dumbly, wondering what her standard of ‘nice’ was. “Okay then,” she said.

It was this moment that made me feel like I was being looked after, that my figurative Mum was in attendance to this situation. It was going to be dealt with in a no-nonsense but caring fashion. I was going to be all right.

I met a plethora of hospital staff that afternoon – nurses, urologists, oncologists, anaesthetists. Even my very own pharmacist in the form of my boyfriend Mark, who left work early and popped in on his way to go and get me some stuff from home. I also met the x-ray staff while I had an x-ray to see if the cancer had spread to my chest. But there’s only one visitor that really sticks in my memory – the evil, dastardly registrar.

Surgeons have a reputation for being full of themselves. It’s well-known they’re supposed to be ego-maniacs because of this magic power to cut and fix that they have. But I always find it so inherently depressing when a person lives up to their cliché.

The man who was about to operate on me came in and immediately put me off kilter with his incredulity that I didn’t get this checked out for so long. “I was out of the country for a long time,” I said, lamely. “But even with your Dad having had cancer?” he exclaimed, looking at me with a ‘what a moron’ look on his face. “I didn’t think it was cancer,” I replied, feeling even lamer.

He started talking about children, do I have any? No. Do I want any? I don’t know. Do I have a girlfriend? I have a boyfriend. “So you’re…” he whispered it, “homosexual?” I laughed. I can’t help myself, what a prick. Why whisper that after bleating to the whole fucking ward about my testicular cancer? Yes, I said, and, obviously a little perturbed, he started banging on about sperm-banking. I wasn’t really listening. Was this necessary right now? I was about to have a testicle lopped off for fuck sake. One thing at a time, please.

He asked me to drop my pants. As had become de riguer for this process now, I held my dick out of the way. It had almost become a comfort thing while I exposed myself to all and sundry. But he knocked my hand away. “Just let it lie there,” he said. I was still of the opinion that he was the doctor and me the patient and did as I was told, despite him being an overwhelming prick. He poked and prodded uncomfortably at my tumour-ridden testicle. I let it ride. Then HE PICKED UP MY DICK OPENED THE URETHRA AND LOOKED DOWN IT. I knocked his hand away. “What are you doing?” I exclaimed. He said nothing. I was literally just a piece of meat to him. I was disgusted. To add to the humiliation I was then drawn on – a big black arrow on my right thigh pointing to the correct testicle to be removed. I was saying nothing now and the surgeon made his exit. “We’ll just get it out then,” he said as he went. Damn right you fucker, do your fucking job.

After he was gone the Japanese doctor came in with a student doctor. He asked politely if the student could have a look at my tumour. Any other time I would have been fine but I was brimming with anger and humiliation. I couldn’t take any more poking and prodding and exposing myself to strangers. I tearfully declined and the doctors retreated quickly.

My mood darkened rapidly after this experience. The gravity of the whole situation started to hit and I realised three awful but unavoidable things. Firstly, I had cancer. Secondly, I was going to have a hugely invasive operation to remove that cancer. Thirdly, this will leave me with just one testicle.

This was all starkly contrasted with the fact that I just didn’t feel sick. I felt just as healthy and normal as I had that morning when I woke up. There was nothing obviously wrong with me, so how could there be something so wrong with me? I was surrounded by old men - old, obviously sick men. What was I doing there??

By the time I was being wheeled down to the operating theatre - a mere seven hours after I’d left work – my mood was as black as night. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – speak to anyone. I stubbornly refused to lie down on the bed – I wasn’t sick or tired, why would I lie down? So I just sat there as they took me into the depths of the hospital.

The two anaesthetists were charming but they did nothing to lighten my mood. They needed my verbal permission to go ahead with the operation. “Are you happy to go ahead with this operation?” one of them asked. “Not really,” I replied. “Are you as happy as you’ll ever be to go ahead with this operation?” he countered. “Yes,” I sighed.

One of them injected me with “something to chill me out”. “Is that working?” he asked. “It’s definitely doing its job, yes,” I said, a little happier. They wheeled me into the theatre. It was remarkably old fashioned, like something from the 70s. I started banging on about how we were in an episode of Life On Mars. I was getting quite chatty now. One of the anaesthetists came towards me with an oxygen mask. “Now this is just a bit of oxygen for you,” he said. He was lying. I was gone before I knew it.


Finally I went to the GP. Not as soon as I was back in the UK, as you might imagine. It took me awhile. Was I in denial? I couldn’t tell you. From my perspective I just didn’t think about it. Of course it occurred to me whenever I reached down absent-mindedly, but I was easily distracted from thoughts about it. Other things were more important: getting work, reconnecting with my friends and family, some of whom I’d not seen for the three years I was elsewhere, finding somewhere to live.

But it wasn’t going away. By the time I made the doctor’s appointment it seemed to be slightly bigger than my other testicle. The bouts of grumpiness were still very occasional – it was only a handful of times I complained to Mark about it aching a bit. But it was hard. I couldn’t get away from the fact it was now almost entirely hard and lacked the spongy feeling of the other one.

Yet still I didn’t entertain (or didn’t allow myself to entertain) thoughts of cancer. I was reasonably sure it would turn out to be something else. At one point I did say to myself, well what if it’s cancer? But I didn’t know where to go with that thought. What do you do with it? It was best just to wait and find out.

The GP confirmed my way of thinking. He’s a batty old man, scatty as. One of those, “Now, where’s my glasses?” Around your neck. “Oh, yes, jolly good. Now, where’s my pen?” He had a look at me and decided it was probably scar tissue developing because I’d knocked it, maybe doing kickboxing. A recent development from the old operations I’d had. With hindsight, it doesn’t sound very plausible; I had those operations some 20 years ago. Why would nothing have occurred from them until now?

He started filling out a form for me to take to St Thomas’s Hospital and make an appointment for an ultrasound scan. Then he said something that shook me. “I’m going to put suspicion of cancer,” he said, and paused. A really long pause. Far too long. “But I don’t think that’s the case. I’m just putting that to get it hurried along a bit. If I leave that out they might not look at it for awhile.” I nodded. I was still hearing the words ‘suspicion of cancer’.

He jolted me out of my thoughts by slamming his pen down. “I can’t do this,” he said. “They’ll think I’m inept if I say that and it’s obviously not cancer. Sorry.” I shrugged, not really sure what was going on. He went off to get another form.

Speaking to Mark later we wondered if he’d been caught being inept before and was a bit paranoid about it. Either way he needn’t have worried. They looked at me pretty quick on seeing what the problem was.

After work I went to St Thomas’s to book the appointment. I got to the Ultrasound Department late and it had just shut. For the first time I felt the urgency of getting this sorted. It was Friday and they weren’t open at the weekend. I could see the receptionist but couldn’t get his attention. I stood there like a lemon, wondering what on earth to do. Then luck struck. A nurse left the clinic and I was able to sneak in. The receptionist looked at me with some annoyance but I immediately launched in with the apologies and didn’t let him get a word in before I handed him the doctor’s note. He immediately softened upon reading it and set about arranging an appointment.

But there was a problem. The earliest appointment was Monday, the next one after that was a week after. The problem with Monday was, my boss was on holiday and my colleague was on a lieu day. I was going to be holding the fort on my own with an inexperienced freelancer my only help.

I decided to risk it. I could just pop out for a couple hours and be back to work the rest of the day. Better that than wait a week for this to get looked at. The appointment was booked. I went home feeling a little better.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


It all started what turned out to be a silly amount of time ago in a land far, far away. I was in my bedroom in Melbourne, lying on my bed. Absent-mindedly I reached down to my balls, had a feel. It’s what we do. Men, I mean. It’s what men do.

But I gradually became aware of what I was doing. Suddenly it gained importance. Suddenly it required my full attention. Something was different. The left one felt different. Or was I imagining it? I paid closer attention. It felt the right shape, and there was the tube coming off it. Yes, that seems okay. I’m imagining it.

It had always been the ‘weird’ one. I was born prematurely and with an undescended testicle. I had two operations before I was 10 to rectify this state of affairs and so I was always aware that this one wasn’t quite the same as the other one. Really, it was only a bit smaller and later discreet (and not so discreet) investigation of other men revealed this to be the usual.

But it continued to change. It changed so gradually that it was, for a long time, hard to tell if I wasn’t imagining it. The clues began to fall into place, however, increasingly hard to ignore. There was an occasional ache in that ball, something I initially put down to not having ejaculated for a few days. I wasn’t comfortable with my boyfriend touching my balls, something I put down to my general ‘sensitivity’ at being touched. But it soon became that particular ball. We started calling it the grumpy one.

Soon it was the same size as the other one, but nothing like the same shape. And it was getting hard. Occasionally the word cancer would fleetingly float through my brain and just as quickly drift off. It seemed like a ridiculous concept in relation to me. At that point I didn’t know how common testicular cancer was amongst men born with an undescended testicle. My father’s experience with testicular cancer some two, three years ago didn’t come into the equation either. He was an old man compared to me. I wasn’t due anything like this for a long time. Or so I thought.

I wasn’t really in a position to do anything about it either, really. When I first noticed it I was in Australia, and while they give reciprocal health care to British citizens I didn’t take the changes in my testicle seriously enough at that time. By the time it was starting to clamour for my attention and getting a bit ‘grumpy’ I was in Thailand, a country where medical attention for foreigners is costly and, worse, unpredictable in quality.

A female friend of mine had the unfortunate experience of having to have an abortion in a Thai hospital. They did it under local anaesthetic and she could feel the doctor going in and the … pain … was unbearable. With this in mind the idea of getting my bits checked out in that country held little appeal. But it quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to be in Thailand for any length of time and so it went on the list of things to do when I got home.