A few times since I’ve been part of all this cancer stuff I’ve had doctors and other healthcare workers ask if I have any support. I always assume they mean support from family, friends and maybe even neighbours or formal support groups, so I’ve always replied yes, since I’m lucky and have all that. Some people with cancer have only themselves and I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for them to cope alone because, even when you’ve got support, it can be very hard, especially when you’re trying to get through treatment.
But there’s one source of support that I bet no doctor or nurse has ever thought I might have when they ask, and that’s my Trade Union. Although I’m now retired I remain a member of ASLEF, which is the train drivers’ union. I was still working when I got diagnosed and from that moment on ASLEF has been there, which was not a surprise to me since they had been there for me since the day I started on the Railway, just as they are for all members. They’ve supported not just me through all the tribulations that cancer brings but my partner, too, when other organisations that you’d have expected to help have done either nothing at all or, even worse, have done the exact opposite of help.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, recently I was asked by someone who works in my union’s Equalities department if I’d like to come to our annual conference to tell my prostate cancer story. It wouldn’t be fair to name names on here when the person isn’t a public figure, but she knows who she is. She’s well and truly on the ball and does a great job and on this occasion she’s excelled herself, as I hope to explain.
I’ve had a few articles about prostate cancer published in my union’s monthly magazine over the last few years to try to raise awareness of the disease. This would be important in any union but particularly so in a union such as mine since it is still predominantly male and, with prostate cancer being the most common cancer amongst men in the UK, our membership stands a disproportionate chance of being affected, so really needs to be aware.
To be honest, when I was asked, I thought: how am I going to do this? I’m fine talking people to death when I’m part of a small group (you can’t shut me up) but I am not a natural public speaker who likes being on a stage, with all eyes on him. In fact, the thought petrifies me but, to be offered a platform where I might reach a large number of men who were likely to be as oblivious to prostate cancer as I had once been and to get them to consider having a PSA test, which I’d also once known nothing about, was an opportunity too good to turn down, so I found myself saying yes.
As unions go, mine is not massive with 20,000 members, and our annual conference reflects our size. What we lack in numbers, though, we more than make up for in mutual support not just amongst each other but also amongst those who are employed by the union and that was patently evident at our Annual Assembly of Delegates, as our conference is referred to.
We elect the people who run the union for us and have exceeded ourselves in the choices we’ve made in recent years by putting in place a progressive Executive Committee and a cutting edge General Secretary who all see the importance of ensuring members are aware of a range of issues, including those such as prostate cancer, something that can fundamentally change a man’s life but, potentially, could kill him, too.
There were around 80 male delegates at the conference and, on the day I was to speak, my union had paid for two prostate cancer charities to be there to provide PSA tests – one called Tackle and the other called the Graham Fulford Trust.
I sat at the back and observed the conference for a couple of hours and then it came to my turn. I heard my name announced and felt my legs turn to jelly as I stood up but somehow I made it to the lectern; divine intervention perhaps? I had my notes with me so that I didn’t just dry up – I know I was telling my story but it’s amazing how forgetful you can be when you’re nervous and having chemo-brain doesn’t help matters. Besides, it’s one thing writing down all the most intimate and personal effects that prostate cancer chucks at you and posting it on a blog for all the world to see, but it’s quite another standing up at a conference for the first time in your life and saying it out loud and making it relevant. And I did tell all, because why hold back? We, as men, need to be open about these things because keeping silent helps no one, least of all ourselves.
I think I must have got all my speech out, although I know I faltered a few times as much from emotion as nerves, because suddenly all these people were standing up and clapping. That was unexpected and felt great but, what was even better, much much better in fact, 56 of the men there rushed off and spent their lunch break and then their afternoon break as well, queuing up to get their PSA blood tests done.
Some of the men came up and spoke to me and said they’d vaguely heard of prostate cancer but until they listened to my story they hadn’t really known what it was, what it could mean and what it might do. They also hadn’t known there was any sort of a test for it.
I have heard all the arguments for not having a national prostate cancer screening programme (and the awareness raising programme that would go with it) but, as someone with this bloody awful disease, I’m not convinced by them. Keeping half the population in the dark about a cancer that can kill them if it’s not found and treated early doesn’t strike me as a sensible way of promoting good health but is a very good cost-saving exercise.
I hope that none of my 56 colleagues who were tested have any reason to be followed up but, if they do, I’m glad that my trade union and the two charities involved might have ensured that, if they have cancer, it has been found early and, therefore, can still be cured.
Whatever their results, they have the woman in the Equalities department to thank for starting the ball rolling. We all help each other and I’m proud to be part of this union.