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The Mental Health Impact of My Cancer Diagnosis

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Just imagine. One minute you’re a 60-year-old training to run one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons and the next the “groin strain” that has been hampering your training turns out to be advanced stage incurable prostate cancer. Ultra-marathon runner to terminal in 36 hours! Quite a headline, don’t you think?

This was in early May 2017 and my ultra was in early June. The “groin strain” that started in February just wasn’t going away so I had made an appointment to see a sports injuries doctor and we’d pre-arranged an MRI scan for 8th May. Runner’s logic told me that he’d do a cortisone injection and everything would be fine. After all, runners are fools who run through pain for fun! The look on his face told me everything I needed to know but even then, cancer didn’t cross my mind. He told me that he wasn’t seeing what he expected and wanted to rule out anything untoward so sent me for a chest x-ray and blood tests there and then, and said he’d booked me in for a full body CT scan the following day. We didn’t sleep much that night!

Leaving my running club on Tuesday 9th May 2017, I took a call from the doctor who told me that he was 99% certain I had prostate cancer and our world fell apart! Driving home in floods of tears to tell my wife was horrendous, but worse was to come when I had to ask my adult children to come round one evening so that I could break the news to them. Possibly the hardest conversation I’ve ever had. How do you tell your children that you’ve got cancer and try and keep it upbeat for their sake? I learned a lot about myself, my strength, and fragility in those days.

Being told that you’ve got cancer is devastating; being told that it’s incurable is indescribable. At the time I had a three-year-old grandson, Ethan, and we doted on each other. All I could think about was that I wouldn’t get to see him become a teenager. My daughter wasn’t married and I wouldn’t get to walk her down the aisle. Horrible dark thoughts mixed with anger and constantly asking, “Why me?”

Next up was to see the urologist and get all the test results. Well, he was a blunt Aussie and that was another harsh, to-the-point and hard-to-bear conversation. Yes, it’s confirmed as prostate cancer and as it’s spread outside the prostate, it’s incurable but it is treatable with the intent to keep you alive as long as possible. Oh, by the way, you may only live two years.

A week or so later, the urologist copied me in on a letter to my GP that confirmed the prognosis and that led to floods of tears. Somehow seeing it in black and white made it even more unbearable.

Our lives fell apart. I fell apart. Treatment started and that helped a bit, but the main thrust of the treatment is chemical castration to stop testosterone being produced as it feeds the cancer. The side effects are awful and debilitating as they completely emasculate you as a man and, in my case, as an athlete. However, the impact on mental health was huge. I realised far too late that I was thinking so much about dying that I had forgotten the joy of living, and anxiety led to depression, and ultimately a complete meltdown.

My 54-year-old sister was admitted to a hospice for end-of-life care about 18 months after my diagnosis, and I was struggling with anxiety and, in addition, was having some business problems. Everything became too much for me and I was constantly in tears. But I realised that I needed help and knew where to go for it. Two and a half hours crying my heart out to a caseworker was incredibly therapeutic and I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Some counselling followed and I felt so much better after it.

People have to understand that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength! I’m so glad that I was strong enough even in a dark moment to get the help I needed.

Since then, I haven’t looked back. I fill every single day with as much joy as possible. Yes, there are still occasional dark moments, but I now know how to bring myself back from the darkness and into the light. Exercise has been such a massive part of that process and I am a huge advocate for exercise. I’m blessed that I’m still able to run. It’s my therapy and I’d urge anyone who is struggling to get outside, go for a walk, feel the sun on your face, listen to the birdsong and get joy from it. It’s a great coping mechanism.

I’ve also completed some running feats despite my treatment that people who are fit and well would struggle with, including a 100km ultra-marathon and in 2022, running at least 5km per day for 365 days. I’ve been able to raise approximately £80,000 for cancer charities in the process!

And Ethan? Well, he’s nearly 10 now and I’ve got three more grandchildren. They are a source of great joy and I spend as much time as possible making memories for them. There is no better feeling than my grandson leaning in, putting his head on my chest and telling me he loves me.

And my daughter? Well, I got to walk her down the aisle on 30th August 2021, the fourth generation of my wife’s family married on that date and it was a day of great joy. She has now given me my first granddaughter as well as a lovely step-granddaughter, bringing me even more happiness.

Cancer is horrible to live with but I feel blessed to have so much joy in my life!

Here’s my advice for anyone living with cancer is: “Don’t lose the joy of living through the fear of dying.”

Tony Collier was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer in May 2017. He’s Now working hard to make sure as many men as possible don’t end up like him. You can connect with him on Twitter @ethansgrumps.

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