Terry Walton's prostate cancer story: ‘More scary than live radio...’

Moira Petty / 01 March 2013

Radio 2 ‘allotment doctor’ and former Saga gardening blogger, Terry Walton shares the story of the discovery of his own cancer.

This month, there are a dozen jobs awaiting Terry Walton on his allotment. He will plant parsnips in drums, see to the early potatoes and move broad beans, lettuce and cabbage out of the greenhouse to acclimatise under cloches. With a glint of cheery anticipation, he says, ‘March really is the kick-start to the season.’

Oh, and there’s also the little matter of finishing his 37 radiotherapy sessions for the prostate cancer that was diagnosed in 2012, which led to ‘terrible low moods of despair, anger and tears’.

Terry, Saga’s much-loved gardening blogger, has been taking a break because last year’s health concerns meant ‘the words wouldn’t flow’. A former engineer and managing director, he found fame in retirement as the ‘allotment doctor’ on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 show.

It took more than six months of investigations to get a diagnosis, even though the disease had been discovered in Terry’s older brother, Eric, when he was the same age. When Terry finally got the news last August, he felt ‘crushed’.

The treatment that followed left him exhausted. His allotment, in the Rhondda Valley, mirrored his debilitated state. ‘It was far from its usual pristine order,’ he says. ‘Gardening felt a nuisance. I didn’t want to get out.’ His wife, Anthea – they celebrate their 45th anniversary this year – stepped in, weeding and primping.

‘Terry just sat on a bench at the allotment and watched me,’ she says. ‘It was miserable weather, and he had a miserable attitude. It was horrendous: he kept being told there was nothing wrong and it was just an infection. He couldn’t cope with me feeling down. It would make him want to cry too. I had to push all those emotions back inside me.’

In February last year, Terry returned from a drink with friends. ‘I went to the loo, and noticed I’d passed blood,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to upset Anthea, so I said nothing.’

Anthea remembers how he ‘sat on the bed the next morning, frightened to death’, making a GP appointment. He was told it was probably an infection, but a week later a urine test came back negative. Even so, he ‘knew something was wrong’. He then saw a urologist privately, who told him that, barring the passing of blood, he had none of the usual symptoms of prostate cancer.

These include urination problems, such as an increase in frequency or urge, and difficulty or pain in passing urine. The same symptoms, though, can also be caused by non-cancerous conditions of the prostate, the gland nestling near the bladder that produces the fluid in semen.

The consultant carried out a digital rectal examination – ‘I was beginning to get used to the loss of dignity,’ says Terry – and declared the prostate ‘smooth and benign’. Nevertheless, he sent his patient for NHS bladder-function tests and an abdominal ultrasound – all of which came back normal. But a PSA test (prostate specific antigen, an enzyme made by the prostate and released into the blood stream) registered 19, when it should have been about four.

Further tests stretching into July showed it had risen above 19, and a biopsy the next month confirmed it was cancer. ‘I was devastated,’ says Terry. ‘I went through this period of asking: “Why me?” I’d always been so fit. I ran cross-country and played squash. I’ve never smoked, drank alcohol in moderation and ate a very healthy diet.’

But he was heartened by his brother’s recovery, and began a three-year course of Prostap, which stops the production of the male sex hormone testosterone, essential for cancer’s growth. For four weeks he was also on an anti-androgen drug that prevents ‘tumour flare’.

‘It left me tired and lethargic,’ he says. ‘I had hot flushes at night and I’ve put on half a stone.’ The treatment inhibits sexual desire, too, but he says: ‘I’m not in that frame of mind.’ Anthea smiles: ‘He’ll be 70 when the treatment ends, so maybe he won’t be up to it by then.’ This gentle joshing, a hallmark of their marriage, is back now Terry’s starting to feel a little better. As we spoke, he was preparing for radiotherapy, which finishes this month. ‘I’ve had tattoos – tiny dots – to mark the area for treatment. I asked, “Can’t I have three Welsh dragons instead?”’ he laughs.

‘I’ve got my Terry back,’ Anthea remarks fondly.

Terry meets neighbours and friends up at the allotment. ‘They have been a tower of strength for me,’ he says. ‘They knew there was something wrong and, being men of a certain age, some had even been through prostate cancer. Their camaraderie and support is wonderful.

‘I’m still broadcasting. This past year’s been even more scary than live radio, but my oncologist says he is aiming for a cure. My family are my priority now. But there’s still time for the allotment.’

For more information

Visit www.prostatecanceruk.org. Speak confidentially to a specialist nurse on Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri from 9am-5pm, or Weds from 7pm-9pm on 0800 074 8383.

Terry’s past allotment blogs are still available here .

This story originally appeared in Saga Magazine

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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