when the cure feels as bad as the disease

Sitting in a hospital room in 2015, his partner Morna by his side, Willie Auld was told he had prostate cancer. He was only 63, and had had no symptoms, the cancer only being detected after he underwent some tests following a urinary tract infection.

“What shocked and upset me was the finality,” says Auld, a retired civil engineer from Perth. “And the stage the disease was at.”

He had retired a year and a half before, and Morna too from her career as a teacher. “We had worked all our lives, and had planned to travel, do outdoor activities and enjoy the freedom. I had to make peace with the idea that I was not going to have the life that I had envisioned.”

The couple were told that his Gleason score – a system used to grade the aggressiveness of prostate cancer – stood at nine. Still, doctors said that it looked as though the cancer was contained within the prostate, and recommended surgery.

“I just decided to roll up my sleeves and deal with it,” says Auld. “Not fight it. Deal with it.

“The following day I called our six grown-up children between us and told them individually over the phone. It was a bit of a shock for all of them. But we were all of the opinion of just doing what needed to be done.”

The couple’s 11 grandchildren – both he and Morna were married before – ranging in ages from seven months to 13 years – still aren’t aware of his condition. “They give me a lot of enjoyment, and I don’t think it’s fair to burden them with this,” he says.

Auld had surgery to remove his prostate in October 2015, but several weeks later tests showed cancer cells were still present, and he would need more treatment. “That appointment was probably the worst of all,” he says. “I had put 100 per cent of my faith in the surgery – I haven’t done this since – that it would mean my cancer was gone. It was so disappointing.”

He was told he would need to undergo radiotherapy and, after that, injections of a hormone treatment every three months for two years. The injections reduce levels of testosterone, which is known to feed prostate cancer, and thus lower the risk of the cancer returning.

But Auld’s treatment did not run smoothly. Half way through the radiotherapy, he developed a complication called radiation cystitis – causing “horrendous” pain, and increased urinary frequency. He also had radiation proctitis – inflammation of the rectum, causing bowel symptoms too.

Such problems are a known risk associated with radiotherapy, caused by the radiation damaging healthy tissue surrounding cancerous cells. In prostate cancer – which is the most common cancer in men, with 47,500 diagnosed every year in the UK – side-effects from treatment are a key concern for patients, as the prostate’s location in the body raises the risk of vital organs being affected. This can lead to problems such as incontinence or erectile dysfunction, though often this is temporary or can be improved with treatments. 

Auld managed to complete the treatment of 20 sessions, having been told the symptoms were likely to improve with time. But when they didn’t, and he was warned the damage can cause long lasting effects, he was pulled into “a downward spiral”.

“I didn’t leave my house for about eight months, at all. I didn’t step outside the door,” he says. “I was terrified. I became very depressed, and was prescribed antidepressants. I was an absolute mess. It was that feeling that I was stuck with this forever that I couldn’t wrap my head around, even though other symptoms were wearing off.”