He is best known for making us laugh, but comedian Des Bishop has also known some very sombre moments in his life, including when he was diagnosed and treated for testicular cancer two decades ago.
This month is Blue September, part of an international campaign to highlight the fact that men are more likely to develop and die of cancer than women, and are less likely to discuss their personal health with family, friends or even their own doctor.
As the World Health Organisation predicts that cancer cases will increase by 70 per cent in the next two decades, Bishop says he is happy to share his story if it makes even one man go to the doctor with suspicious symptoms as early detection is vital.
“Any campaign that raises awareness for men to look after their health is important,” he says. “Men have a habit of resisting looking for help sometimes so I am happy to try to motivate them to make good choices about their health. I am getting older now too and prostate cancer is similar to testicular cancer in that early detection makes things so much better.”
The American-born comedian noticed a lump in his testicle in the summer of 2000 and while he admits to ignoring it for a while, a chance meeting with a friend prompted him to go to the doctor to have it checked out. “I left it for a while hoping that it would go away,” he says. “I had a friend who had it before so I was aware of testicular cancer, but you still think that it couldn’t be you.
“Then, after a few months, I finally admitted it to my girlfriend at the time and I began to take it seriously. Not long after that, as chance would have it, I bumped into my friend who had it before and what he described to me was the exact same as what I had, so I went to the doctor immediately after that.
“There was no immediate diagnosis, but my GP was concerned straight away and told me to get an ultrasound done immediately. This was on a Wednesday and I went and had the scan done the following day. I was told they would just take the scan and the specialist would tell me the results on Friday. So I went in on my own thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal, but the person who did the ultrasound told me right then and there that it was testicular cancer.”
Needless to say, Bishop, who was only in his 20s at the time, was devastated, but soon learned that, because he had acted swiftly, his prognosis would be very promising. “Initially, I was totally shocked because I didn’t even know that I was about to find out [the results],” he recalls.
Although a lot of people think it would be a really big thing,
it was never really a huge deal for me to have a testicle removed
“I couldn’t believe that I was suddenly sitting on my own in the reception pondering the fact that I had cancer. A woman next to me asked me if I was okay as I was on the verge of tears and not long after, I had a chest X -ray and then went outside to the canal and cried for a bit. I really was in disbelief and called my mother, who of course was in a total panic as she was back in New York.
“But quickly I learned that testicular cancer is very treatable, and a lot of the stress faded away. I did have to have surgery immediately and this was done on the following Monday. Although a lot of people think it would be a really big thing, it was never really a huge deal for me to have a testicle removed.
“I never think about it now and it has never been an issue for anyone I have been involved with romantically. Following surgery, I also had a course of radiation, just to be safe even though it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes.”
After his diagnosis and subsequent surgery and treatment, Bishop used his fame as a means of getting the message across that it’s so important to visit the doctor with any concerns, regardless of how embarrassing people might feel, because early diagnosis can save lives.
“After this all happened, I wrote loads of material about it and tried to be as public as possible to raise as much awareness about how you should go to the doctor immediately,” he says.
“I knew afterwards that the fear of finding out stopped me going to the doctor so I try, as much as I can, to take away some of that fear for anyone else who has a lump [by talking about it publicly].
“It is such a simple thing to deal with when caught on time, so it would be a terrible pity if people had a bad outcome because of a delay. I was lucky that despite delaying, I got away with it, but it is not worth taking that chance.”
ABOUT TESTICULAR CANCER
Testicular cancer is one of the easiest cancers to treat and very often it can be cured. The treatment varies, but the first step is usually surgery and then the type of treatment depends on the size and stage of the disease, the type of testicular cancer (whether it is seminoma or non-seminoma), if the cancer has spread and the general state of the patient’s health.
The most common symptoms of testicular cancer are:
- A painless lump or swelling in a testicle
- Pain or discomfort in a testicle or in the scrotum
- An enlarged testicle or a change in the way it feels
- A heavy feeling in the scrotum
If the cancer has spread, you may get:
- A dull ache in your back
- Tenderness in the breast area
- Stomach ache
- Shortness of breath
- A painless lump in the side of the neck
Those at risk of testicular cancer may have one of the following:
Undescended testicle: Testicular cancer is more common in men with a testicle that did not descend, or which descended sometime after birth.
Previous history of testicular cancer: You are slightly more at risk if you have had testicular cancer in the past.
Family history of testicular cancer: You are more at risk if your father or brother had the disease.
Fertility problems: If you have fertility problems, you have a small risk of testicular cancer. But a vasectomy does not increase your risk of developing it.
Mumps: If you had a rare complication of mumps called mumps orchitis, your risk increases.
Ethnic and social group: If you are white skinned, you have a higher chance of getting testicular cancer than African-Caribbean or Asian men. Testicular cancer is also more common if you are in a wealthier social group.
Klinefelter's syndrome: This is a sex chromosome disorder that causes low levels of male hormones, sterility, breast enlargement and small testicles. If you have the syndrome, you have an increased risk of testicular cancer.
According to the Marie Keating Foundation, one in three men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime so it is vital that they know what signs to look out for and the Blue September campaign aims to raise awareness.
"Blue September is a month in which we shine a light on male cancers and encourage men not to put their health on the long finger," says Liz Yeates, chief executive, Marie Keating Foundation. (Show your support for those on a prostate cancer journey by buying a Little Blue Man pin.)
"Our Stand Up For Your Prostate campaign, fronted by Des Bishop and a host of Ireland's best comedic talent, ask men to "step up to the mic" this September and speak to the men in their lives, and their GP about their health and remove the stigma surrounding prostate cancer, and men's health in general."