Prostate cancer: The 'no symptoms' disease that can be cured - if it is caught early enough

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A man has recalled the moment he found out his cancer was incurable as charities describe Wales as being on the wrong side of a "postcode lottery" for prostate cancer treatment.

Simon Gammon, a 59-year-old retired insurance claims investigator from Usk, Monmouthshire, was diagnosed with advanced aggressive prostate cancer in 2017. He was told it was incurable, and that he had seven years to live.

Men over 50 are most likely to have prostate cancer although people are urged to visit their GP from the age of 45 for a check-up. It often has no symptoms, meaning people often do not see an immediate rush to see a doctor.

New figures released by Prostate Cancer UK show that Wales is falling behind English when dealing with the backlog for a diagnosis which built up during the pandemic

Every 45 minutes one man dies from prostate cancer – that's more than 12,000 men every year. 

Simon was 56 when he had a routine blood test which picked up some vitamin deficiencies. It was whilst being monitored, waiting to go back for further tests, that he noticed a change in his urine - another tell-tale sign of prostate cancer.

Although Simon still thought he was at relatively low risk from the disease, it was following those tests that he was told the news.

He says: “I drove down to that appointment and what I got told took my breath away, the air felt as though it had been sucked out of the doctor's office. It was horrible”.

But Simon's story is not unique. The latest data shows variations in the likelihood of cancer being diagnosed before it spreads beyond the prostate and becomes incurable.

He says GPs are hesitant to test people without symptoms Credit: ITV Wales

In Wales, almost a fifth of men with prostate cancer are diagnosed with metastatic disease, meaning it has spread.

That is compared with one in eight such cases in London. Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as the North East and North West are amongst the nations and regions to also struggle with detecting the disease at an early stage.

More than 500 men are diagnosed with stage four metastatic prostate cancer every year in Wales.

But Simon’s passion for travelling, gaining new experiences, and “still going out to eat and drink with his friends” has not gone, despite his diagnosis.

He says: “A friend of mine had booked a trip to Argentina for a month, and he asked me if would go and I thought, 'Well, that sounds sensible!'

"I spent a couple of weeks in California travelling between San Francisco and San Diego with a friend, and later in June, I travelled with other friends to New York and Connecticut”.

Simon also talked about the difficulty of being in a relationship while living with an incurable disease.

"If things came along then that was nice. I guess I always thought that at some point I would meet a woman and you know, by the time I died, I'd been in a relationship and you know, the reality is that's highly unlikely to happen now, and that's difficult”.

Simon is keen to also raise awareness of the disease, saying that "if it's caught early, it's much more treatable".

However, the pandemic has had a damaging effect, creating a backlog of referrals.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer amongst men, with one in eight diagnosed with it in their lifetime Credit: ITV Wales

New analysis by Prostate Cancer UK shows that whilst English regions have made significant inroads into the Covid backlog, diagnoses in Wales have not consistently risen above numbers seen prior to the pandemic.

Simon hopes his own experience will open up honest conversations between men, both with and without symptoms.

Simon says the illness has altered his perspective, saying that he's learnt to live with his diagnosis: “When I was first diagnosed, in my mind, I guess … I was dying of cancer and here we are five years on, and I'm living with it. I know it's not a great place to be, but your mindset changes and so you have to live as best you're able.

"You have to cope with it. It doesn't go away. I try not to dwell on it all the time. It's a bit like walking around with a gun at the back of your head- you never quite know when it's going to go wrong”.

Chiara De Biase from Prostate Cancer UK says: “Early curable prostate cancer doesn't start with symptoms. By the time symptoms arise, that's often too late for a cure, which is what we're seeing in the data that these men are presenting. It is too late to be given a curative treatment".

However, if caught at the earliest stage, 100% of men with prostate cancer survive at least five years.

Chiara adds, "It's very treatable in its early stages, but it doesn't have symptoms, which is why doing lots of awareness raising around prostate cancer is so important in these geographical regions”.

In response, the Welsh Government said it has made cancer recovery a "priority" for the NHS.

“GPs in Wales are referring record numbers of people for cancer investigation and health boards are rolling out Rapid Diagnostic Centres to help people with so-called ‘vague’ symptoms if a GP suspects cancer.

“More broadly we are investing tens of millions of pounds in the latest diagnostic and radiotherapy treatment equipment and also funding higher training places for additional specialist clinicians that support cancer services.

“Given many cases of prostate cancer will have hard to detect symptoms, it is important that people with concerns, or those who at higher risk, speak to their GP for advice.”