Tony O’Donoghue: ‘I was really still a child when I lost my dad’

Campaign highlights importance of early detection in treatment of prostate cancer

Tony O’Donoghue was in his first year at UCC and, at 17, was ‘really still a child’ when he lost my dad, says the sports commentator.

Tony O’Donoghue was in his first year at UCC and, at 17, was ‘really still a child’ when he lost my dad, says the sports commentator.

 

More than 3,500 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in Ireland every year and, while it is a fairly common occurrence, it has a very good survival rate if caught early.

Many men, though, are not comfortable discussing their health problems and often don’t seek medical help until it’s too late, which is why the Marie Keating Foundation is running a campaign throughout the month of September to encourage men to speak out and get their prostate checked.

Tony O’Donoghue knows only too well the devastation this disease can cause as, while still in his teens, he lost his own father to prostate cancer.

“I was in my first year at UCC and, at 17, was really still a child when I lost my dad,” says the sports commentator. “I knew he was sick but my mother didn’t want him to know how serious it was or anyone else to know he was ill so she asked me and my two older sisters not to talk about it. I don’t know whether this was to shield him from reality or because she couldn’t face it herself but it was tough trying to keep it all in.

“He was sick for a couple of years but treatment wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now so he did go through a hard time and I really noticed a difference in him, without realising how ill he actually was.

“Then he took a turn for the worse and was admitted to the Mercy Hospital in Cork. We didn’t have a telephone in the house at the time so a cousin was sent to look for me at college. Apparently it took him ages to find me and when he did, I rushed over to the hospital and I remember a security guard trying to stop me from running up the steps and my uncle intervened and said ‘his father is after dying’ – that is when reality first sank in.”

Cancer was something you didn’t refer to back then. It was the big C which we didn’t talk about

The broadcaster, who has two children of his own – Aoife (22) and Tim (8) – says when his father became ill, cancer was a word that people whispered about rather than tackling it head on and, having also experienced the disease for himself, he is adamant that everyone, particularly men, should check themselves regularly and seek help if at all worried.

“Cancer was something you didn’t refer to back then,” he says. “It was the big C which we didn’t talk about. This was obviously so wrong but it still needs to be addressed.

“Most men tend to talk fluent football and don’t really get any deeper than that so we need to start being more open. I was drawn to my job because I like to talk and hear from other people but I was reluctant to share my own story initially as it felt strange to be open about it, but now I’m not afraid to say that I experienced cancer.

“It was very frightening and not something I would wish on anyone. And I’m terrified of it coming back but if I kept that bottled up, it would eat away at me until there was nothing left.

“So I really think it’s vital for us to open up about cancer and everything else. It will help us enormously in every way – mentally, physically and emotionally.”

O’Donoghue had cancer in 2011 and it was diagnosed only when an RTÉ make-up artist – Siobhán Power – noticed a lump on his neck. She urged him to get it checked out. However, initially he thought it was nothing and felt he was too busy to bother with the doctor, but something urged him to go, even though he didn’t feel sick.

We need to start thinking about our health in the long term, not just tonight, next week or next month

The lump turned out to be cancerous and he went on to have surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Today he is in good health and is checked regularly by his doctor to ensure this remains the case. He believes he is in control of his own health and is urging every man in the country to do the same.

“We need to start thinking about our health in the long term, not just tonight, next week or next month,” he says. “Men need to be more aware of their health and start to take control of it. We need to start looking out for the warning signs and not be embarrassed about getting tested or even talking about getting tested.

“I don’t want to sound like I am preaching but I really missed out by losing my dad so early. If he had been aware of the signs and been tested, we might have had more time together. Father and son relationships are so important and so many people don’t realise that they can be shattered so quickly by an illness. Women have done a great job of making people aware of breast cancer and the need to check for abnormalities, and now it’s our turn to make sure we men do the same for prostate cancer.

“It’s been over 30 years since I lost my dad and it still makes me emotional, so I am doing all I can to make sure the same doesn’t happen to me. It’s all about awareness and if this campaign makes just one person go and get checked, then it’s been worth it.”

One in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives but, if caught early, it has a 90 per cent survival rate.

Helen Forristal, director of nursing services at the Marie Keating Foundation, explains when to seek medical advice. “Prostate cancer can often be asymptomatic which is why it is vital when you are over 50 [or 45 with a family history] that men go to get checked and talk to their GP,” she says. “There are some signs to be aware of but what is important to note is that these can be related to other prostate issues, not just cancer.”

If you are experiencing any of the following, it is recommended you see your GP:
- Difficulty or pain passing urine;
- Difficult to postpone passing urine;
- Going to the toilet more frequently than before;
- Getting up more often at night to pass urine;
- Taking time to get going when passing urine;
- Weak or intermittent flow of urine;
- Incomplete emptying of the bladder, feeling like the bladder is not empty;
- Leaking urine;
- Blood present in the semen or urine; 
- Erection problems.

The new Stand Up for Your Prostate campaign is looking to empower Irish men to be more open and comfortable discussing their health. It is urging men to watch for any symptoms that could be related to prostate health, talk to family and friends about their prostate health, and act by going to see their GP if they have any concerns.

“Prostate cancer has a 91 per cent five-year survival rate, so the message is very much that early detection and intervention is very effective,” says Forristal.

“The treatment options available really depend on the stage and type of prostate cancer diagnosed and are very personal to each individual. But the options that could be explored are: surgery [open, keyhole or robotic], radiotherapy [external beam radiotherapy, intensely modified radiotherapy or brachytherapy], and always ask about clinical trials that may be suitable.

“Hormone therapy before and possibly after radiotherapy for moderate to high-risk cancer or hormone therapy alone if prostate cancer is aggressive in nature or has had the opportunity to spread to other areas of the body, mainly bone, and chemotherapy can also be an option.”

About prostate cancer

Prostate cancer occurs only in men and it is diagnosed after a biopsy to the prostate gland where prostate cancer cells are picked up.

Some 3,550 men are diagnosed with the disease in Ireland every year.

Prostate cancer cells can be mild, moderate or aggressive in their nature. Generally speaking, a biopsy is indicated if either the PSA blood test and/or a digital rectal examination is abnormal.

The consultant urologist will keep you informed of your results and what should happen next for you. You may also see a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) in prostate cancer who will help you to understand your cancer and the treatment options together with possible side effects associated with each treatment option.

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