Beat testicular cancer
As a football fan I loved watching John Hartson, right back from the time when Harry Redknapp bought both him and Paul Kitson mid-season in a desperate bid to score West Ham out of the bottom three. Crazily it worked. He never played for my team (though as a Catholic Scouser, I’ve always kept an eye out for Celtic) but I loved him because he played like a fan. He bustled and barged; he seemed to argue with everyone; and in a world of preening floppy-haired divas he looked like a brickie who’d jumped out of the crowd to spur them into action.
Most importantly, he understood that people paying to watch games love to see goals. He could look almost awkward with the ball at his feet, pushing past defenders as if he was trying to force his way into a nightclub, but give him a glimpse of the net, and his shot was hard, straight and true. The goal he scored to knock Liverpool out of the UEFA cup in 2003 was a peach. An audacious run along the front of the penalty area that left the defence for dead, finishing with a rocket that Christiano Ronaldo would have been pleased with. I sort of clapped, but wished he could have done it to someone else.
But in those years, when John was doing what he did best, a little bastard called cancer was doing what it does best – building a dystopia inside his body. It established a bridgehead inside one of his testicles and then located its own pathways to spread elsewhere. The worst thing was, it was doing it in plain sight. “I’d been aware of two nut-shaped lumps on my testicles, but for several years I didn’t think anything of them,” he says. “I was living a normal life, training every day and scoring goals. The lumps were getting bigger, but it didn’t occur to me that it was a sign of anything.”
In the years when the cancer was growing John scored 100 goals for Celtic, another dozen or so for Wales, and made a brief return to the English leagues before retiring to forge a media career. Then in 2009, he started to have headaches, which paracetamol wouldn’t ease. As is so often the case, his salvation was his wife who told him to see the doctor when he told her about the lumps. By this time the cancer had spread to his lungs and his brain. It was, he tells me, “five or six years” since he’d noticed the initial signs. “My message to men is to check regularly, and go to the doctor if you find anything different,” he says. “I went through 65 courses of chemotherapy and two brain operations, all of which I could have avoided had I gone to the doctor earlier.”
Portrait of a killer
Arguably, testicular cancer’s profile is out of proportion. It accounts for just 1% of male cancers, but a number of high-profile sportsmen – including Bob Champion, Jimmy White and Lance Armstrong – have suffered from it, meaning it’s more likely to be reported upon. However, it’s a disease which predominantly preys on those in the prime of life – it has the highest rate of incidence in men aged 15-49. And the bad news is it’s going up. “In the last 30 years, incidences of testicular cancer in the West have almost doubled,” says Dr Claire Turnbull, a senior researcher at the institute of Cancer Research and lead researcher for Movember’s Testicular cancer programme. Its cause is a mystery. “A family history will raise your risk by six to eight times, and your risk increases five times if you’re born with undescended testes,” says Turnbull, which suggests that it’s down to getting a bad ticket in the genetic lottery. But this doesn’t explain the doubling of cases in such a short space of time. “That would indicate something environmental,” says Turnbull.
Now for the good news: far fewer men are dying from it. There are rarely any absolutes in cancer-world, but present to a doctor in a timely fashion, and you’re almost guaranteed to be cured.
The reasons for this are, appropriately, twofold: firstly, by virtue of being outside your body, lumps are far more noticeable, and secondly the disease responds very well to chemotherapy. “Germ cells, which are responsible for 90% of testicular cancer, are very sensitive to platinum. That’s why you’ve had these incredible success stories like Lance Armstrong,” says Turnbull.
Standard treatment is – brace yourself – the removal of the offending testicle, with between 1/2 and 2/3 of patients receiving follow-up chemotherapy. There’s concern over the effects on fertility, particularly from younger patients, but to quote Lee Marvin’s Sergeant inThe Big Red One. “That’s why they give you two, soldier.”
“Most men are still able to father a child after testicular cancer treatment,” says John Newlands, an information nurse specialist at Macmillan Cancer Support. “However sperm banking is usually offered before surgery, even if the chances of becoming infertile are low.”
John Hartson is living proof of this, last year fathering his fifth child, though it’s his first since his illness was treated. He also got the all-clear from the disease, but he says he took that in his stride. “I wouldn’t say I was elated, but it was a good day.”
A return to rude health
Since his recovery, he’s combined his straight-talking but always thoughtful punditry for the BBC with running the John Hartson Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping men with testicular cancer. “I want to raise millions,” he says, striking an evangelical, almost spiritual note. “A lot of people thought I was going to die, and I came very close to leaving this place, but something was helping me. There’s a reason I’m still here and I want to give something back.”
Fittingly, on the day I speak to John, the combative Newcastle midfielder Jonas Gutierrez made his return to football after being treated for testicular cancer. The cheer he got from all corners of St. James Park was truly inspiring. But that was where the fairytale ended. Two minutes after coming on he was booked, and Newcastle went on to lose to a late scrappy goal.
Unromantic I know, but in a way it was the perfect parable. Much the same as in life, there are no guardian angels to protect you from this cancer. Your survival is in your own hands. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Video: Can You Cure Testicular Cancer?
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