More than a sporting chance

Rugby star Johne Murphy asked his teammates to raise money for Movember after his father was diagnosed with a tumour in his prostate.

SINCE it began in Melbourne in 2004, Movember has challenged men to grow a moustache, or a ‘mo’, for November to raise awareness of cancers prevalent in men.

In eight years, the campaign has raised €134m for cancer research and related charities.

Munster rugby star and Movember ambassador, Johne Murphy, became interested in the campaign when his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“We did it last year, when Dad was sick,” says the Munster back. “I sort of led the charge. Our coach, Tony [McGahan], gave me a bit of time at the start of a team meeting and I just said ‘look, lads we’re going to do this Movember thing and set up a charity and raise some money’. We made about €1,500 and it all went to Blue September.”

Although raising money was important, Murphy and his teammates wanted to raise awareness of cancer, especially among men.

Had Johne’s father not been diagnosed, for instance, it is unlikely the three of us would be drinking tea around the kitchen table at the family’s farm in Rathangan, Co Kildare on a drizzly Thursday afternoon.

“I remember reading, about 15 years ago, that prostate cancer was as big a problem in men as breast cancer was with women,” says John Sr. “I couldn’t believe it, but the stats were there. The article went on to say that men weren’t getting checked up. At the time, they had this test — a PSA test. It’s a simple blood test and every 12 months, from then, on I got it done. But I never really thought about it. The doc would bring it back and say ‘that’s normal’.”

Over 2,500 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in Ireland each year. According to the Irish Cancer Society, the risk of a man developing prostate cancer before the age of 50 is one in 485, but that increases drastically, to one in 13, before the age of 70. Prostate cancer is 90% curable, if it is treated in its earliest stages. Men are advised to double their annual visits to their GP once over the age of 60. On advice from a doctor friend, John Sr increased the tests to once every six months when he turned 60. It was the best advice he was ever given.

“I went in January 2011 and there was nothing, everything was fine,” says John Sr. “Then, at the end of June, I got the test done again. The next time I got the call from the doc, he said ‘John, there’s a bit of a spike in this. Your reading is still relatively low for a man of your age, but there might be something going on, so I’m going to send you to a specialist to have a look at it’.”

When John visited the specialist, John Thornhill, in the Blackrock Clinic, his worst fears were realised. The test came back positive. He had an aggressive tumour in his prostate gland.

“I had no symptoms, except I couldn’t go through the night without having to go to the bathroom,” John Sr says. “I wouldn’t get past 4am, but I had that for six or seven years. Physically, I felt well. “When the doctor tells you, you have this sort of outer body experience — ‘Is he telling me I have cancer?’ That C word is big,” John Sr says. “I was never in hospital before for anything. I drove home in a bit of a daze.” Not only had John Sr been told he had cancer, he also had to wait to find out if it had spread to other parts of his body.

“As a family, to get that phone call, it completely knocked us for six,” says Johne. “So, I can’t really imagine what it must have been like for Dad. And, then, the worst part is that you’re sort of left to your own devices. You go for a scan and a couple of blood tests and then you’re just left waiting.”

Luckily, the cancer had not spread, which meant taking decisive action.

“The consultant rang me and asked us to come in to see what we were going to do with it,” says John Sr. “In the intervening period, people had told me that the doctors would give me a whole lot of options, but they wouldn’t tell me what to do; they’ll leave it to you. When I went in to him, he said ‘there’s one thing for you, we’re going to take it out and get rid of it’. They were great words ‘get rid of it’.” John Sr was in hospital on a Thursday and had the prostate removed the next day. He left hospital the following week and has been clear of cancer since last October. “It does change you,” he says. “The things I would have worried about before wouldn’t worry me now.

“My whole thing, now, would be about staying alive and staying healthy; being able to get up and go out and do things.”

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