‘I’m fighting the cancer that killed my father – and it's strangely life-affirming’

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Michael Dobbs: ‘I discover that none of this treatment truly hurts’ - Jay Williams for The Telegraph
Michael Dobbs: ‘I discover that none of this treatment truly hurts’ - Jay Williams for The Telegraph

It’s the ugliest word in the English language. Six little letters that strike fear into everyone. Cancer.

And I got it.

Prostate cancer. It killed my father and is doing horrible things to my older brothers. I guess it was my turn. A death sentence? Perhaps. But much more importantly it’s proved a reaffirmation of the joys of life in all its magnificent colours. Yes, as weird as it may seem, I feel blessed.

I’ve never seen my prostate, never felt it. The nurse told me it’s about the size of a walnut and is near the perineum – but where the hell is that? It turns out the male perineum is a no-man’s-land, stuck somewhere between your balls and your bum, and mine was about to become a war zone.

I’ve done my biblical three score years and 10 but I had no warning, no symptoms, just an uptick in my annual blood test for PSA, the best indicator of whether your prostate is behaving itself. I needed a biopsy, and suddenly I’m on my back in a hospital surgical unit, my legs in stirrups. This is a deeply disturbing moment, even frightening. I’m afraid it will be both painful and humiliating.

The urologist is holding a long needle and forcing my captive legs wider apart.

“You might feel a little prick,” he says.

“I do,” I mutter through gritted teeth, my nether regions flapping ever more openly in the breeze.

“Are you comfortable, Mr Dobbs?” one of his two female assistants asks sweetly.

“That’s the most bloody ridiculous question I’ve ever been asked,” I snap back.

The urologist wants one of the nurses to take photographs. I ask if I might have copies. “I need something different for my Christmas cards.”

And the helter-skelter ride between fear and laughter that has circled around my prostate in recent months has begun.

Michael’s father Eric Dobbs with his grandson Will – Michael says ‘it was that silence that killed my father’ - Jay Williams for The Telegraph
Michael’s father Eric Dobbs with his grandson Will – Michael says ‘it was that silence that killed my father’ - Jay Williams for The Telegraph

The fear bit is wildly overdone. We all know of people who have died, and some like the wonderful Bill Turnbull who have it and aren’t going to get over it, but the vast majority – 98 per cent of those diagnosed – won’t die from it. And given that one in eight men will get prostate cancer, that’s one hell of a lot of survivors – so long as you find it early, which means asking your doctor for a regular PSA test.

Fear is an inevitable part of being told you have cancer. That fear is followed by confusion because there’s a kaleidoscope of different treatments. Surgery. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Hormone treatment. Or if it’s low grade, simply wait and see, die with it rather than from it.

I wasn’t in a great place to find my way through this maze, particularly when I saw the concern carved into the faces of my family, so I went for a second opinion in Harley Street, where I discovered that the side effects of the treatment can be as challenging as the treatment itself. Your prostate is right next to the nerves and other bits that control your sexual functions and waterworks, and if you’re going to turn your prostate into a mini-Chernobyl it’s likely to get at your bowels as well. A bit like playing Russian roulette with at least three bullets in the chamber.

I choose radiation, I refuse hormones because – Hallelujah! - I’ve caught it early. I end up on another surgeon’s table, legs spread once again, my dignity in disrepair, while he inserts a gel that’s hopefully going to protect my bowels from some of the more unpleasant effects of high-dose X-rays. The war in no-man’s-land is about to be racked up another notch. Hospitals have a habit of plastering images on the ceiling above treatment tables in the bizarre belief that pictures of cats and donkeys will take your mind off the fact that some stranger is about to start prospecting for rare minerals in your sensitive parts. In this case I’m staring at a light show of a revolving universe filled with stars and planets.

I’m apprehensive; I have no idea how painful this is going to be. When the nurse asks if I like their light show, some idiot starts talking about the joys of identifying black holes and Uranus. That idiot sounds remarkably like me. The nurse collapses in giggles and the surgeon lectures me to keep very still or else.

In other words, I’m finding a coping strategy. Cancer is not fun. The radiation treatment where they bash your prostate to bits lasts every day for a month. And I hope it’s going to keep me alive.

I also discover that none of this treatment truly hurts. Discomfort, yes, but no pain. And I’m cared for by wonderful NHS urologists, oncologists, radiologists and others who even during the height of Covid give me blood tests, biopsies, scans, rectal insertions, radiotherapy and abundant emotional as well as physical support.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. It kills around 12,000 every year but there are more than 300,000 out there living with it or after it. Yet lockdown has played havoc with screenings being postponed and patients reluctant to visit their doctors. Some have suggested this will cause tens of thousands more prostate and other cancer deaths. It needn’t be yours. Go get that PSA test, and another next year. Catch it early before it bites!

I’m having my final scan before radiation treatment starts. A ridiculously young radiologist announces that she’s going to tattoo me – “down there”. I ask if it’s permanent. It will be.

“Can I have a butterfly?” I ask.

“No, it’s a bullseye,” she replies.

And frankly, gentlemen, you want the guys and gals who run The Great Zapper to have something really accurate to aim at “down there”.

Broadcaster Bill Turnbull has spoken openly about his prostate cancer in a bid to raise awareness - Channel 4
Broadcaster Bill Turnbull has spoken openly about his prostate cancer in a bid to raise awareness - Channel 4

Then off to Southampton University Hospital, every day for a month, to get some of the best anti-cancer treatment the country has to offer – up to now it’s been foreplay; this is the serious bit. Masked, alone, no visitors allowed. In certain parts of my life I am Lord Dobbs etc, but here I’m just like everyone else. Sick. In need of help.

One of the other patients – let’s call him Robbie – always greets me with a smile. His cancer has spread. His treatment can’t cure him, at best might buy him three or four more years. Yet here he is, supporting others.

I ask how he can be so cheerful.

“Hell, we’re all facing health problems,” Robbie says, “and one of the biggest problems amongst men is silence. You know, before I got here I was on my own. I never knew others shared exactly the same stuff. Until now.”

With that, the last of my fears disappear. I begin to realise how lucky I am. To have had the tests and caught this bloody thing so early, to be allowed to look at my life afresh and decide what in it is truly important. Prostate cancer has been a life-changing experience, and bizarrely to this point it’s been almost entirely positive.

An infant Michael (centre) with his brothers Peter and David
An infant Michael (centre) with his brothers Peter and David

For sure, some of the side effects have been unpleasant. The prostate is gatekeeper to your bowels and bladder and other important bits, so when you beat it to a pulp there are times when it kicks back. One day I felt as if I’d run three marathons, but it passed. And when I felt rough, I rejoiced that those little bastard prostate cells were having an even tougher time. Nothing in my treatment has been particularly painful, and certainly not as painful as having to face my family and say goodbye. That, I suspect, will not happen, at least not yet.

It’s now six months after I was diagnosed and four weeks since my treatment. It’s impossible to say I’m cured but there’s no sign of lingering side effects. Everything still seems to be in working order “down there”. I’ve lectured my sons – or at least their more sensible wives – that given our family history they must get PSA tests regularly from the age of 40. I tell them there’s nothing to fear. It’s fear, and stupid male silence, that will kill them. It was that silence that killed my father.

I’m working out, walking long distances, shifting piles of logs ready for the winter, looking forward. Not everyone is left in my position, of course. Not Robbie.

“Let’s be optimists,” I said, “and have lunch together in 20 years’ time.”

“Excellent idea,” he said. “I’ll make the reservation.”

For further information or support about prostate cancer go to Prostate Cancer UK or Macmillan Cancer Support