In football, bravery and aggression are attributes that make opponents quiver in their boots. When ex-footballer P.J. Roberts – known for his tough-tackling nature during his playing days – was diagnosed with testicular cancer two years ago, he regarded it as just another game.
“I couldn’t wait to get stuck in,” asserts the former Geylang United midfielder, who is no stranger to playing through pain, be it a fractured cheekbone or the niggling lower-back issue that eventually forced him to retire from professional football. “I just took testicular cancer as another injury I had to come back from.”
The episode started with a sharp pain in the scrotum one morning that “came out of nowhere”. By afternoon, it became so intense that he headed for the hospital. “There, I got the results in about 11/2 hours later following a blood test and an ultrasound,” P.J. says. (His oncologist, Dr Patricia Kho of Parkway Cancer Centre, says the latter can reveal the presence and size of a mass in the testicle.)
A few days later, P.J. had the testicle containing the cancerous growth removed. “It wasn’t a tough decision,” the 40-year-old insists. “My libido is about the same as before, and I don’t feel any less manly at all. If anything, doing it makes me feel more of a man.”
Now on the road to full remission, he has made starting a family one of his priorities, especially knowing that his ability to reproduce had hung in the balance. “The most stressful part about the whole thing was that you don’t know if you’re going to be infertile, as there’s no sperm in the semen during and after the chemo. I have a fertility test coming up, and in case the result comes back negative, I’ve frozen some sperm as back-up prior to my treatment.”
Also nerve-wracking for him was the biopsy on his removed tumour, performed right after the operation to determine the exact stage of the cancer and how far it had spread. Dr Kho tells Men’s Health that such a move usually takes four to five working days to complete. “The wait did make me nervous,” P.J. admits.
“I finally found out the cancer was at Stage 1B, which is quite early,” he continues, recalling his relief. Dr Kho had told him that for the initial stages, cure rates for testicular cancer are as high as 95 to 99 per cent, whereas finding out late would mean a five-year survival rate of about 75 per cent – a vast difference. (To perform a self-check, refer to “D-I-Y: Detect It Yourself”.)
Still, a gruelling chemotherapy routine was to come. “Chemo weakens your immune system, exposing you to the possibility of infections,” he states. “I had to undergo a number of tests to make sure my body was strong enough to accept the chemicals going into me, because the experience can get pretty awful.”
In this instance, he continued to live up to his reputation as the lung-busting lad with plenty of strength and stamina. “The doctors said my health and fitness level going into chemo were very good, so there was much room to drop. So having a base level of fitness was a massive plus. It acted as a buffer.”
During chemo, the gung-ho Aussie saw every day as game day. “Like going into a match, you have to know your role and team strategy very clearly in your head, and have the discipline to see through it,” he says. “For my treatment, what dosage of drugs I’d be having on what day is mapped out, as well as when I’m supposed to go to the hospital, when my rest day is… So I know the plan of attack.” Focus on that, and he reassures that anyone going through the same process will have an easier time staying optimistic.
Another factor that helped: his pain threshold. “My doctor said my tolerance to physical pain was quite high, which makes sense, as my body came under quite a bit of duress as a pro footballer. When I was 22, I played with a broken fifth metatarsal without knowing it until after the game!”
Even then, he says there were days where it felt like “being hit with a sledgehammer”. In spite of this, P.J. insisted on exercise. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than waking up and going straight to the hospital, getting on the drip and having chemicals pumped into my system. I’d go for a light swim or a gym session for 20 minutes every morning. If I was feeling really bad, I’d still try to go for a walk.”
In fact, it was tougher for him to see his family and friends get stressed over his condition. “They really empathised. Even though I might be feeling quite positive, sometimes their mood will get to me. But that just goes to show how important it was to put them at ease, and manage them a bit.”
With steadfast family support, P.J., who also does punditry work for Fox Sports, coped even better. “It was actually a lovely experience in the sense that I’ve got to spend so much time with my mum and dad, who flew in from Australia. With the conversations we had, the bonds grew even more,” he remembers fondly. “So, a bad experience turned into a really comforting one.”
Three months after finishing his chemotherapy, he was given the all clear. “I dived straight back into life,” he quips. It was then that he made a bold career transition, leaving the banking industry for a job in sports and entertainment research and consultancy. In other words, returning to his passion.
“I’m sure my experience with cancer had a part to play in this decision,” he muses. “I’ve become more comfortable to take steps that I would otherwise have perceived as too much of a risk before.” And, enthusing about his upcoming charity game, P.J. declares: “I still play football!”
WHO’S AT RISK?
“Testicular cancer affects 1 per cent of men, but this has been increasing over the years,” says Dr Patricia Kho, oncologist at Parkway Cancer Centre. The average age at time of diagnosis is 33. “Men between 18 and 40 years old are at highest risk of developing testicular cancer,” she adds. According to a study by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, you may be at a higher risk than the average male if you frequently engage in strenuous physical activity.
D-I-Y: Detect It Yourself
Perform this testicular cancer self-test once a month, advises Dr Patricia Kho, oncologist at Parkway Cancer Centre. “Doing so can help you find any change in the testes early.”
STEP 1- Shower
The self-test is best performed after you’ve had a bath or shower. This is when your scrotum will be relaxed, allowing you to more easily spot abnormalities.
STEP 2 - Feel
Check each testicle separately using one or both of your hands. Roll each testicle between the thumb and forefinger to check that the surface is free or lumps or bumps. Do not squeeze.
STEP 3 - Observe
Compare the size, shape and texture of both testicles. Identify the epididymis (sperm collecting tube) that runs behind each testicle. This is often mistaken for an abnormal lump. Testicular cancer usually affects one testicle at a time, so it’s useful to compare.
If you find an unusual lump, approach your GP without delay.
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