Men's Health Week: Life and support after a prostate cancer diagnosis

Being diagnosed with any form of cancer can be a harrowing experience which may lead to lifestyle adjustments and a deep feeling of uncertainty, says a leading prostate cancer expert.

Graeme Woodside, the chief executive of Prostate Cancer Foundation New Zealand, says that transition shouldn't feel like getting thrown out into the wilderness - unprepared and resourceless.

Every year, 3000 Kiwi men are confronted with a diagnosis of prostate cancer. While there are several campaigns to generate awareness of the disease, if a diagnosis comes, it's still devastating.

"When guys are diagnosed they really have the blues, it can be a pretty devastating thing for guys," Woodside told Newshub.

Only men have a prostate, which is located in front of the rectum and below the bladder. It's the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third most common cause of cancer deaths among New Zealand men.

The foundation plays a significant role in getting men, particularly those who are older, to recognise the importance of getting tested.

As the cancer doesn't necessarily produce major symptoms - like pain when urinating or blood in urine -  until the condition is advanced, getting tested prematurely is needed.

There are several ways men can be checked, including tests for significantly increased levels of prostate-specific antigens which can indicate the cancer, a rectal examination, or a rectal ultrasound probe.

But due to the feeling of having their privacy invaded and general fear of the result, it can be difficult to encourage men to head to the doctors. Woodside says it's also vital to ensure that those considering it aren't scared by thinking there is no help on the other side.

Among the foundation's array of methods to ensure patients feel supported is an online support forum, helpline, and welfare grants for those with hardship related to their treatment.

Doctor holding digital tablet talk and explain about the treatment of male patients. Treating patients with prostate cancer.
Photo credit: Getty.

There are also 36 support networks nationwide run by the foundation with the aim of providing valuable resources and a helping hand to prostate cancer patients, their families, and anyone who may have questions about being tested.

They're run by trained volunteers, who advertise the groups within the local community.

"Most of them would be people who have experienced the disease. Some run them on their own, some of them run them as a couple, sometimes two or three guys get together and will get a group going," Woodside said.

"What we try and do is get them to not just rely on their own experience, but reflect the broader experience of people who are going through a prostate cancer journey."

"Guys go along, they check in and talk about their own situation, any updates on their condition, and then often they will have a guest speaker to do a presentation on something related to the disease, survival, dealing with some of the difficulties that they have got with loss of continence and things like that following treatment."

Treatment can differ depending on a series of variables, like age, prior conditions, lifestyle, and personal choice. It may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or hormonal treatment.

Woodside said the two main issues that men speak about after being diagnosed are incontinence and erectile dysfunction. These can be common side effects of the prostate being removed.

Mature radiologist communicating with a senior male patient who is about to receive an MRI Scan.
Photo credit: Getty

The groups are popular. While some only include a handful of people, others are more like seminars, Woodside said, with up to 50 people attending.

Some will go to the meetings long-term and then work as volunteers themselves to give back, while others prefer to just go when they feel the need to.

"Once they get through their treatment they want to get back on with their lives and they don't want to be continuously reminded about what they have been through."

While the groups are helpful, Woodside said the foundation must be realistic in understanding not everyone wants to put themselves out in the open about what can be a very private issue.

"A lot of guys want to remain very private about their disease and what they are dealing with. Others find enough support with their own friendships and social networks, family networks. They don't need groups like that.

"For those that do go along, we hope we are making it a meaningful experience for them."

Providing a plethora of inspiring stories from cancer patients or those who have dealt with the disease on the foundation's website is really important to Woodside.

"To show them that others have got through it, prostate cancer doesn't mean a death sentence... to give them hope and that they can recover from the side effects from treatment as well."

He also wants to dispel myths of any diet that is a single bullet in stopping people getting cancer. Healthy eating is important, but it doesn't mean someone is completely safe.

Exercise is also important after treatment.

"There is real evidence now that exercise following prostate cancer treatment does help with recovery and also helps with getting back to normal life and actually guarding against the return of the cancer.

"We are in the process of setting up an exercise programme. We were running a pilot programme in Christchurch for eight weeks at the end of last year and we are now just looking to work with Exercise New Zealand to set up a network of prostate-specific exercise groups for men recovering prostate cancer."

Paper with prostate cancer and light blue ribbon
Photo credit: Getty

The foundation doesn't get funding through the Government, so it relies on donations and support through fundraising events. It holds a Blue September fundraising campaign encouraging people to hold blue-themed parties and events to raise money.

Men's Health Week (June 10 - 16) aims to bring awareness to health issues that affect men disproportionately.