Neil Hoolahan - Senior Tax Manager
Neil Hoolahan, 35
I was only 24 years old when I found out I had testicular cancer. I'd been away on holiday and noticed an ache in one of my testicles and put it down to sitting awkwardly on the plane. The ache didn't go away, but I left it and left it…I managed to ignore it for two whole months, but that's what men do isn't it? The ache continued, but there wasn't a lump, although I did notice it was hanging a bit lower and it was bigger than the other one.
Ultimately I realised I couldn't wait any longer so I booked an appointment with the doctor and went down there one lunch time. When I got there I was horrified to find out I was booked with a locum…who was probably in her late 20's and female! I could have easily walked out, but thank heavens I didn't.
So, after about five minutes of general chit-chat with the doctor, she could obviously tell something was up, I knew I had to do it. I explained as best I could and then of course had to drop the trousers. She was immediately concerned and sent me straight up to Accident & Emergency at the hospital. By that point I wasn't thinking that much about what it could be, but when you're sent up to the hospital without an appointment you know it could be serious.
I saw Dr Allsopp, (who is now Male Uprising Guernsey's patron). I had an ultrasound scan and immediately he was almost 100 per cent convinced that it was testicular cancer. He took blood tests and I left. It felt totally surreal, I'd left work at lunchtime and a few hours later I had a cancer diagnosis.
I went to see a friend and had a cup of tea to try and get my head around things before going home. I sat in stunned silence over dinner until I blurted out the news. My mum was instantly upset and that's when it hit home. I was 24 and I had testicular cancer.
A week later I was booked in to have it removed. The operation went well and by the time I'd suffered the indignity of having some student nurses watch the dressing being changed I was starting to try and deal with the illness with as much humour as I could muster.
I then waited another week to see the oncologist from Southampton Univiersity Hospital and they confirmed it was stage 1 Seminomas cancer, which thankfully is the better type of testicular cancer to get. The tumour was quite large, and completely encapsulated my testicle, which is why I hadn't felt a lump. But I was lucky, the Southampton University Trust was running a clinical trial and I got onto that programme for treatment. The idea was to have one single, but very potent chemotheraphy treatment. I went across to the hospital with my mum and the first job was to get a nuclear marker injected into one arm to check my liver and kidney function, which was scary but at the same time quite fascinating. They were basically trying to find out how strong a dose of chemotherapy my body could withstand. The treatment became very real at that point. My next stop was to the sperm storage unit, which was very surreal and quite frankly embarrassing, particularly with your mum there! You go off with the jar and everyone knows what you're up to. I just tried to be light hearted about the whole thing!
From then it was back for more blood tests and then I went down to the chemotherapy unit, which is a truly fantastic place and not at all what I was expecting. It was specifically for young people and I was grateful not to be surrounded by older and more poorly people than me. I expected to be on the drip for two hours but it went in much faster and there was a bit of a panic, but everything was fine and I flew home the same day. I took comfort from the fact that it was done but one look at my bag of drugs and I knew what was coming. I'd been told to expect sickness, potential hair loss, a metallic taste, tiredness, etc. but the first day or two was fine. Then on the third day a rancid aluminion taste decended, it was like chewing tin foil, then the nausea and a total loss of appetite. I could only stomach really bitter lemon or orange juice - it was the only thing to cut though the taste. I'd barely manage to get up or out before collapsing back into bed but after a week or so that subsided and I started to feel better. I was so grateful to be on the trial and I truly sympathise with anyone who has gone through repeated cycles of chemotherapy.
After that, things started to settle down. From having the operation and finishing the chemotherapy and going back to work only took around three weeks and that was the benefit of the one big hit of chemo. Because I delayed going to the doctors I was late with getting the testicular cancer diagnosis and that can mean the cancer has spread. I had regular x-rays and CT scans every three months for the first year and then quarterly for the second year. I then dropped down to six monthly check up appointments for another three years and I got discharged four years ago when I was 31.
I found remission strange at first and had to deal with a number of different emotions you worry that it can come back, or that the treatment may not have worked and on a bad day you just want to know what's on the horizon. It's a horrible disease. At the time I kept a lot to myself and I didn't want to upset anyone, I bottled it up and got on with it, which is the man's way isn't it?
And yes, now I checked my remaining testicle regularly and once I did think I had a lump. Needless to say I got it checked straight away and it was fine, just a cyst.
I have a son of four and a step-son of 12 and I feel strongly that they and the younger generations have a more proactive attitude towards health issues. When all of this happened I was only 24 and I was only focused on myself. Now as a father my focus has turned outwards, looking after my children and both are / will be aware of how to check their balls and the importance of taking to someone when they notice anything out of the ordinary. It was horrendous to get your tackle out in front of people, no one wants to go through it, but it's a whole lot better than delaying a diagnosis or treatment. I have been waiting for the MUG programme to move onto testicular cancer before I got in touch, and I hope my story might make someone be that little bit more proactive. The message really is that simple, if in doubt, get it checked out.