It’s hard to imagine the fear those young men must have felt as they approached the shore in their landing craft. I was thinking of them 70 years later to the day, as I made my way to Blackrock Hall Health Centre in Mahon, trying to imagine what they mast have felt, hoping to put my own fear in perspective.
I tried to convince myself I was launching my own campaign to free myself from nature’s tyrannical plan to overpopulate this planet, that what I was doing was a heroic deed. But nothing lessened my fear. I was terrified.
The decision to have a vasectomy wasn’t made lightly, but since I hit 40 next year, I felt that now is the time. My wife and I have been fortunate to have three wonderful children — with a fourth on the way — so she has done more than her fair share. She’s been through almost three years of the various delights of pregnancy and about a week of hard labour; it was time for me to step up.
Society tells us that men are the protectors — the men who stormed the beaches on D Day were guided by this belief as much as anything — and while gender politics may have evolved considerably since the 1940s, I still walk on the outside of the footpath when we’re out together, and I’m still the one sent down to investigate when the fridge’s auto defrost goes bump in the night.
However, when it comes to reproductive protection, the responsibility is very much placed on women. Think of the plethora of contraception available for women — a vast array of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, all of which have potentially serious side effects.
For men, there are two options; condoms or vasectomy. As a man of absolutes, I chose the latter. A friend of mind told me about Dr John McCormick’s vasectomy clinic in Blackrock Hall, pitching it to me with the catchy line of ‘no scar, no scalpel’.
The scar part was never a concern; frankly, it will be a dark, dark day in my career in the media if a vasectomy scar is a barrier to me getting work. The absence of a scalpel however, was most appealing. I made my appointment, got a few simple instructions to prepare for the procedure — the main one involves some light manscaping, so you’re going to need to borrow your wife’s Ladyshave and be very, very careful with it.
In the days running up to the event, I chatted to a friend about what I was about to do; his words of consolation were ‘ah sher you’ll be fine — when I got my dog fixed he hardly bled at all’. I tried to explain that I wasn’t about to be neutered, that fertility and virility were not the same thing, but his comment still struck a chord.
I remember getting our cat neutered — before, he was a big playful tom, wandering, hunting and carousing. Afterwards he became big, fat and lazy. I knew this wouldn’t happen to me, but the niggling doubt remained — would a vasectomy change me?
Would the twinkle in my eye slowly flicker and die? Would my wit be dulled, or would some part of me be lost forever; in essence, would there be a lessening of who I am? Arriving at the clinic, a hyper modern health facility bordering on dystopian, I took my seat and watched a minute or two of The Jeremy Kyle Show on TV.
If ever there was an advert for responsible reproduction, it’s that. Then all too soon it was my turn. Dr McCormick explained the difference between his technique and the more traditional vasectomy: “One of the common myths about No-needle No-Scalpel Vasectomy is that it is a new modern method of male sterilisation over conventional vasectomy.
“While it is relatively new and has not been in practice in Ireland for very long, no-scalpel vasectomy has been in practice since the late 1970s in China and in the USA since the 1980s and has grown in popularity since then.”
This technique also means no syringe, so you won’t have to stifle a snigger at the line “you may feel a little prick”.
“No-needle anaesthesia is a more comfortable method of delivering the anaesthetic. It works much faster and men don’t experience the typical “bee sting” sensation that occurs with a needle being used. Once it has taken effect men typically don’t feel anything else.”
He ran through all the usual stuff, including potential side effects of the procedure, and talked me through the Lovecraftian wonders of the male reproductive system and how his more modern vasectomy technique works. He even drew me a little picture, which looked like a cartoon octopus.
“A traditional vasectomy is where one or two incisions are made with a scalpel or sharp knife. Each vas deferens, the tube that carries sperm, is then accessed through the corresponding incision and the vasectomy is then performed. Because a sharp blade is used bleeding is more likely to occur.
With a No-Scalpel Vasectomy only one small opening less than 1 cm in length is made in the middle of the scrotum, it’s actually more of a small tear in the skin as opposed to a sharp incision. This is normally healed within 24 hours and no stitches are necessary.”
Then it was up on the table and we were underway. The application of the anaesthetic is the only part of the procedure you feel — it’s basically two small jolts of mild discomfort, certainly nothing like the pain of stubbing your toe or having a toddler run head first into your groin. 10 minutes later, I was done.
I gingerly eased off the table, Dr McCormick gave me a can of Coke to steady my nerves, and a couple of minutes later I was on my way home. For the next couple of days I lay in bed and ate Jaffa cakes someone had given me as a joke (Jaffas are seedless oranges) and watched The Big Lebowski a few times.
I was back in work as usual the following week, but scaled back my exercise regime. Four days later I was back tentatively running, and by Father’s Day, nine days after my personal D-Day, I was back to my usual routine. Now, two months on, it all seems like a distant memory, albeit one that will probably make me squirm a little for some time yet. There is absolutely no physiological or psychological difference.
I wanted to write about my experience for two reasons; one, it helped me overcome the fear, to see it as a research project — sort of like Woodward and Bernstein, if they had spent most of the Watergate investigation walking like John Wayne and sitting down very, very slowly.
I also wanted to write about it because I found that not many men talk openly about vasectomy. I looked on the internet in the build-up to the day, but what little I found gave me no solace — it was chest-thumping bravado, the occasional horror story, or the textbook male comment of ‘sher you’ll be grand’.
It seems that even in the age of the overshare, there are still some topics men aren’t comfortable talking about. In 2012 Swedish anthropologist Felicia Garcia presented a paper at NUI Maynooth after spending two years studying men in the area I grew up in. She found that young men were routinely having their sexuality and masculinity ridiculed over such simple things as using an umbrella or eating a salad.
This oppressive ‘lad’ culture, where sexuality was constantly policed and emotions stifled, meant that Ms Garcia found young men in east Cork were slower to talk about their feelings than the members of south American gangs she had previously studied.
So many of our ideas about what constitutes being a man are caught up in false notions of strength, that somehow fear, sadness and love are seen as less manly than anger and lust. I was terrified by the thought of getting a vasectomy, and afterwards felt a lot of sadness; it meant no more babies, and the finality of that is bittersweet, as few things in this life bring as much meaning into your world as being a parent.
The primal fear I felt was unlike anything else I have ever experienced; it felt like every fibre of my being from DNA up was screaming at me to stop, but I knew that this was my job, this was something that I had to do.
For me, getting a vasectomy wasn’t about sex or desire, it was a profound statement of love and devotion — that if through some terrible circumstance I should lose my wife and children, that these moments, this life we have been blessed with, could never be reproduced.
Having a vasectomy was part of my role as a protector, as a father and a husband. As my wife and I move through life together, I want to protect her; if that makes me less of a man, then I’m ok with that.
Scientists at Harvard who analysed medical records of nearly 50,000 men found those who had vasectomies were 10% more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer. The study also revealed a stronger link to the most aggressive and potentially lethal forms of the disease, which seemed to increase the chance of developing it by 20%. The danger seemed to be highest in men who had the procedure before the age of 38. The Journal of Clinical Oncology, which recently reported on the study, noted biases, such as the possibility that men who have had vasectomies have more medical check ups. Obviously this link is worrying, as is the link recently revealed by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington between the contraceptive pill and an increased risk of breast cancer — although it is also proven that the pill can reduce your risk of getting other cancers overall. There are risks with any medical procedure so discuss it with your GP first.
Dr John McCormick says: “No single study has demonstrated a definite link with vasectomy and prostate cancer.”
The most recent guidelines from the American urology association published 2012, stated a vasectomy did not increase the risk of prostate cancer.
The recent article, quoted by multiple news outlets adds to the debate, but that research study also has flaws. It didn’t consider other confounding factors and variables that may affect prostate cancer. Every form of birth control has associated risks and it’s about weighing up the risks and benefits.
Dr John McCormick’s procedure costs €450, which may seem a lot until you realise that most baby travel systems cost upwards of €600. You will be able to drive home after the procedure, but it might be safer to have someone with you to drive.
As for recovery time, Dr McCormick says: “Because it’s minimally invasive men are much less likely to have bleeding or swelling, with no more “ice packs” needed. Men return to work the next day and sports or physical work may be resumed after 48 hours.”
Although I do know of one person who went kickboxing the next day, my advice would be to take it easy, rest up, and 48 hours later you can get back to normal. You’ll need to wear an athletic support outside your underwear for a few days, so just pretend you’re Superman. Age is also no barrier to getting the procedure — Dr McCormick has performed it on men from 23 to 73.