He fought cancer – and won
Nigel Harper celebrated his 67th birthday last Sunday, grateful to be alive 11 years after undergoing radical surgery for prostate cancer.
His positive, proactive approach to the disease that continues to take the lives of about 100 Barbadian men every year could to some extent be a significant contributor to his survival.
Too many men in Harper’s opinion, have an “overall fear” of prostate cancer, do not understand the disease and fail to deal with it at the earliest stage.
“If you hear you have the big ‘C’ and you tell yourself you are going to die tomorrow, you have a real serious problem. Because, you can live for ten years with real serious pain, or ten years real trouble-free – feeling good, doing everything and then look back and say wait ‘I thought I would have died ten years ago’; or you can drop dead the next day,” said Harper.
As a fit young man engaged in bodybuilding, he routinely went for a prostate-specific-antigen (PSA) test every year.
“Especially when I reached 40, I used to pay particular attention to getting my medicals. I would not wait until I felt sick, it was a routine thing.”
From the records he kept of those visits he noticed the PSA numbers climbing with every yearly examination. “It hit four, and then I saw six and over a four-year period it shifted . . . . I was really at the first point which is wait and see, but not wait and see foolish, because by the time it hit seven point something, my doctor said ‘come back and see me in three months. If this moves again, I will send you to the urologist and we will find out if you are cancerous or not’.”
His PSA rose above eight in three months, signalling it was time to investigate the likelihood of prostate cancer. When he was referred to a urologist, “I knew before my results came back, what the likelihood that I had cancer was.”
Harper had been doing his own research on the internet and he said: “I got more intense before my results came back so I was not scared.”
In the characteristic matter-of-fact way of the Harper his friends know well, he told about walking into the urologist’s office over the Christmas season when that doctor was on holiday to be confronted with a nurse reluctant to show him his results when he asked.
“ I told her ‘you see those results you have there that came up from the hospital? They are mine, not yours, not the doctor’s. It is about me, and while I can understand from an ethical point of view why you don’t want to show me, they are my results and I am not moving from here until you show them to me.”
It was a challenge made calmly, his voice not raised at all, he said, but it was sufficiently forceful that he was shown the results by a professional whose mind he read as telling herself “let him see them, because when he looks at them, they won’t make any difference to him”.
Folly. Harper had done so much investigation on his own, that when he scrutinised the information he recognised statistics and information that hit him with the stark reality ‘Harper, you have cancer’.
“I handed them back to her, I said ‘have a Merry Christmas’ and I turned through the door.”
It was just before Christmas and the doctor was off for the holidays, and sitting face-to-face with the urologist after, he was not at all surprised when the cancer diagnosis he anticipated, was confirmed.
“What are we going to do?” he asked the urologist. The reply – “It is not what we are going to do, it is what you and your wife will do . . . . Go in on the net, do your research, come back to me and that would be an opinion that you and your wife form and once it falls in with what I think will be the best for you, I will go with it.”
Harper encourages female partners to accompany their men on the cancer journey from the start.
“I do not know how many partners go along with their man, but when some ignorant pains start and he is home stumbling about and vomiting and can’t help himself who is going to look after him?” he remarked.
His own wife was at work and could not accompany him to the doctor the day he received his positive results, When she called him and asked: “Heh, do I still have a husband?” His response was a terse “Yes.” Her enquiry: “What are the results?” was met with “I am all right.”
That was far from the truth as his wife was to learn later that night, when at home he confessed: “I told you a lie today . . . . I am cancerous.”
Today he laughs when he tells how his wife, who devotedly supported him throughout the ordeal, fell silent, only speaking to him the next day.
Personally, he approached the whole thing as “no big challenge”.
“I used to talk to the cancer. I reached a point where I said ‘Listen to me; I cannot afford to allow you to live in my body. If you live in my body you are going to kill me . . . . If you want a drink and some food, you can have it but you cannot be a guest in my place’.
“I might have sounded crazy, but this is what was happening in my mind.”
Even Harper’s urologist may have been taken aback at his reaction to the details about the surgery especially when his patient announced “you bringing me in the hospital Monday, I am going home Saturday, unless something goes other than it should”.
He underwent a prostatectomy in February 2003 after turning up at the Accounts Department of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital two weeks before the surgery and announcing: “I am here to pay you some money for a room that I am going to occupy in February when I am coming to get some surgery done.”
The nurse he approached on a hospital ward and requested to see the room in which he would be accommodated did not understand why he wanted to see the room beforehand either.
Nonetheless, she showed him two rooms; he looked around and left, because “I was preparing myself from the beginning to the end.”
Harper is concerned that too many men refuse to have a regular prostate examination mainly because of fear that a cancer diagnosis could mean the end of their sex life, but also because some consider the digital rectal examination repulsive.
This is their folly, he argues. “Since it [prostate cancer] is coming at younger ages it is causing quite a problem,” he said.
He is not convinced that more men will be persuaded to take the PSA test even with the recently-announced reduction in the cost.
Harper continues to exercise moderately and follows a selective diet. He is encouraged that unlike yesterday, there are men today who are open in talking about their cancer ordeal.
“I am glad they do it now and I hope it encourages people, but I don’t feel it will.”