A series of fortunate events: How COVID-19 possibly saved my life

As 2019 clocked over to 2020, we had nothing but high hopes for the year ahead. My wife and I had bought tickets to Europe to attend my niece’s wedding that June, and we were counting down the months to our long awaited overseas trip. Little did we know that the mystery illness making its way through China would soon put a halt to our plans. Nor did we realise that cancelling those plans may have ultimately saved my life.

It was the 17th March 2020 when Western Australia’s Minister for Health, Roger Cook, declared a Public Health State of Emergency. Then by April 2020, as the COVID-19 situation worsened both in Australia and overseas, it became clear that we had to cancel our flights. But rather than wallow over cancelled plans I decided to make the most of my newfound time and catch up on some neglected health checks. I decided to have a Prostate Cancer PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) test, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

A deadly diagnosis

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in Australian men excluding non-melanoma skin cancers. In fact, Australia has the highest incidence of prostate cancer in the world – a cancer that kills more men than breast cancer kills women. And yet it’s something we don’t hear anywhere near enough about.

After my Prostate Cancer PSA test, a follow-up with a specialist, an MRI, a biopsy, and a PET-CT Scan, and despite having no symptoms, I was diagnosed with high grade prostate cancer. I was one of approximately 16,750 men diagnosed with prostate cancer in Australia in 2020.

Prostate cancer is generally a slow growing disease and in the past it was considered something men ‘died with’ in old age, rather than ‘died from’. However, in some cases, particular amongst younger men - and in my case - the high grade disease spreads aggressively and can be lethal. Prostate cancer claimed more than 3,610 lives in Australia in 2020 alone.

Faced with this shocking news, I arranged to take time off work so I could prioritise my health. Just one month after my diagnosis, I had a successful surgery which completely removed the cancer cells from my body, and a year on my recent PSA test has shown undetectable levels. I was one of the lucky ones.

The importance of testing

Thanks to a global health crisis, I was forced to stay in Western Australia and catch up on some rather overdue medical tests. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, I may not have thought about organising these tests until months after we returned from Europe. And by that time, due to the high grade, aggressive cancer that I had, the situation may have ended very differently. I will always be grateful for those stay at home orders which prompted me to get tested.

The biggest problem is that prostate cancer at an early (and potentially curable) stage may not have obvious symptoms. While the PSA blood test for Prostate Cancer measures the amount of PSA in your blood, it is notoriously problematic for GPs to interpret and advise on a course of action. Not all patients with an abnormal PSA will have prostate cancer, and the only way to find out for sure is via a prostate biopsy.

The average age for diagnosis of prostate cancer is 67 years, but it can, and does, occur in younger men. I was 63 when the cancer was discovered. Approximately 1 in 5 Australian men will develop prostate cancer during their lifetime. Thinking about our firm, those figures would see 19 men in Hames Sharley’s offices affected by prostate cancer at some stage. It’s a staggeringly high figure.

The good news, however, is that the survival rate for all cancers has increased from 51% to almost 70% in the past two decades. For some cancers, like breast and prostate, a five-year survival rate is as high as 95%.

Prostate cancer awareness month

September is prostate cancer awareness month – an incredibly important month that aims to raise awareness amongst Australian men and their families. Men concerned about prostate cancer are advised to talk to their doctor and make an informed choice about whether to have any tests designed to find early signs of prostate cancer, in view of the potential risks and benefits.

If I hadn’t chosen to do the PSA test, I would have had no reason to suspect that anything was wrong, and I was very fortunate to catch the cancer just in time. The survival rate for prostate cancer is very good, but it can be fatal if left undetected. As they say, being forewarned is being forearmed, so the best thing for men to do is know the signs, talk to your GP, and have the PSA test. The test alone isn’t guaranteed to detect cancer, but it’s one of the best, least invasive, early screening tools we have. And if
you’re anything like me, it may just save your life.

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