My Story Will Make You Run And Check Your Nuts
It was about 4 pm on Friday October 20, 2017.
I was sitting on my couch watching the news, though I wasn’t really taking anything in. I was waiting for the call to give me the test results from the ultrasound and blood test I took that morning. I’d spent the whole day trying not to think about them, but that had been impossible.
Finally, my phone lit up. Before I answered, I let it ring a couple of times, as if to pretend I wasn’t that concerned about the results.
Surely it’s nothing. Right?
My GP was on the other end. I could tell immediately from the tone of his voice it wasn’t going to be good news. He sounded almost resigned.
I had cancer. My life had changed forever.
To be honest, I was kind of expecting it. When I went in to see him earlier that day he seemed very concerned about the size of my right testicle.
“So, do you think it could be cancer?” I’d asked, trying to make it sound nonchalant.
“It could be, or it could just be a benign growth.”
He didn’t sound convincing.
My girlfriend knew I was going in to have my enlarged ball looked at. It was her idea for me to do it. I’d been putting it off for months, partly because I was so busy with work, and partly because I was embarrassed and didn’t want my doctor looking at my balls. Looking back on it now, I was 26 and so dumb. But, I’d never had any serious health concerns my entire life (though being lactose AND fructose intolerant makes me really gassy) so it was easy for me to just pretend to myself that it was nothing.
But if she didn’t make me go that day, I’d probably be dead now.
Getting the diagnosis was, strangely, a bit of a relief. I’d been feeling pretty sick for quite a while up until that point. Not only had my right testicle been enlarging and changing shape for about 12-18 months, I’d been feeling pretty rundown for about six months, getting a lot of coughs and colds. I’d developed chronic pain in my back, and I’d lost about eight kilograms from losing my appetite. I thought it was stress and anxiety. So, to be told it was cancer gave me a sense of relief that at least the problem had been identified.
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Of course, the relief didn’t last very long. I went in to do a CT scan on Monday October 23, 2017 (all these dates are etched in my memory) and I would soon be told that the cancer had spread extensively.
I had more than 100 tumours in my abdomen and chest. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would later be told that my odds of survival were 50/50.
That’s something I’ve learned from my experience. The doctors don’t always tell you your odds, and there’s a good reason for that. Every person’s cancer is unique. Even if you have the same type of cancer, your prognosis depends so much on the stage at which it's diagnosed, your personal health going into the experience, how well you respond to treatment and a myriad of other factors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience, it’s that statistics don’t mean shit. There’s no point thinking about them. All you can do is do the treatment and hope for the best.
For me, it was a lot of treatment. I underwent a total of 24 weeks of chemotherapy and five rounds of surgery (one of which was a marathon 11-hour procedure on May 4, 2018 that involved a team of four surgeons and left me bedridden in hospital for three weeks). It was tough. Very tough. The one thing that made it easier to get through was having the people I love around me.
It was surprising to me to realise how small my inner circle was. I’ve got a lot of very close friends, but the only people I trusted enough to let them see me at my worst were my girlfriend and my parents. They would come and sit by my bedside for months, just keeping me company, bringing me food (when I could eat) and doing their best to keep my spirits up and my mind off the surgery and chemo. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been without them.
But, Jesus, I felt like such a burden.
I was lucky too that, being a comedian, I could at least try to find some purpose in the experience. A few months after being diagnosed, in between rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, I started to write jokes about the experience. It was so helpful finding some purpose in all of the suffering. Suffering without a purpose is tough. Suffering with a purpose is a little easier.
A lot of people think cancer isn’t funny. That’s just not true. It’s very funny.
Asking the stenographer while she was doing an ultrasound of my testicles if I was pregnant is funny. Well, not to her. But it was funny to me. And laughing at the experience was so empowering.
It meant that, for a brief moment, I wasn’t a patient facing a good chance of death. I was just a guy cracking some jokes.
Sure, it was probably a self-protective delusion, but it helped more than I’ll probably every be able to articulate.
I don’t think I have a clear message from my experience. I hope people take from my experience whatever lessons resonate individually with them. Having said that, one thing that would’ve helped me when I was 26 and dumb is this:
Don’t be an idiot. Prioritise your health and don’t think you’re invincible.
I’m lucky. I’ve been in remission for almost eight months now, and my doctors are confident that I’ve been cured, though I will be monitored very closely with regular blood tests and CT scans for at least 12 months.
Of the cancers, testicular is probably one of the best to get, and not just because it’s the funniest. Though it is the most common cancer among men aged 20-34 (it’s estimated about 800 Australian men will be diagnosed with it in 2019), the treatments are very effective, and (despite my dislike of statistics) actually has a 95 percent survival rate.
So if you want to be part of that lucky majority -- or unlucky depending on your outlook -- make sure to be regularly checking your balls and, if you notice any change in size, shape or feel, go to your GP immediately. I thought testicular cancer meant that I’d be in pain and pissing blood. That’s not true. Check your balls every few weeks and don’t delay going to the doctor if you notice any changes. The sooner you do it, the better it will be for you and the people who love you.
For more on my story, tune in to The Project on Network 10 tonight at 6.30pm.
Michael is performing his new show 50/50 at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival until 21 April and will be performing at the Sydney Comedy Festival 26-28 April. For details, head to his website.