The brothers who ALL battled prostate cancer: Death of eldest sibling prompted them to get tested
Like most siblings, the five Gregory brothers had never lived in each other’s pockets. Occasional phone calls, family gatherings or special anniversaries were fitted around work commitments and bringing up their own children.
But the death of the eldest brother, Derek, from prostate cancer in 1986 revealed a legacy that has forced them all to face up to a disease that affects 35,000 men a year in the UK.
‘Losing Derek was a terrible time for us, but I suppose there is a certain comfort in the fact that his death saved our lives,’ says Michael Gregory, 61.
Brothers David, Michael, Terry and Trevor all battled prostate cancer
For Michael and his brothers David, 71, Terry, 66, and Trevor, 63, would all later discover that they, too, were suffering from the disease – but they might never have had themselves checked out had it not been for Derek.
Forty per cent of prostate cancers are familial, and the risk doubles if a male sibling is diagnosed.
The prostate is a small gland in the male reproductive system and its main function is to produce seminal fluid for semen. An inability to pass urine is one of the most common symptoms of the cancer. The growth presses on the urethra, the tube that carries urine, and blocks the flow.
Michael, from Swindon, says: ‘Derek started noticing symptoms about 18 months before he died. At that time tests weren’t as good as they are now and the fact he had trouble emptying his bladder was dismissed as an old man’s complaint, even though he was only 55.
‘But after suffering agony on a holiday in Spain because he couldn’t go to toilet, he went to hospital in Swindon and doctors immediately suspected he had prostate problems.
‘A biopsy revealed it was cancer and although he had radiotherapy treatment, it was too late and he died in June 1986.’
When David Gregory, a plasterer, began experiencing similar difficulty passing water in 2000, he wasted no time going to see his GP.
Derek's death affected his brothers but they also owe their lives to him
David had a biopsy and the tests came back negative. But after continuing to suffer pain and discomfort, he went back for a second biopsy a year later and that proved positive.
Six months of radiotherapy followed and David returned to work after his successful treatment. He now has annual tests for prostate specific antigen (PSA), a substance present in the blood which is used to identify men at increased risk of having the disease – the only definitive test available for prostate cancer.
Then in June 2004, Michael and Trevor, because of their family history, were approached by Synexus, a company that carries out clinical trials, and were asked to take PSA tests. Michael’s was negative but Trevor’s indicated a high risk of prostate cancer and he was given a biopsy, which proved positive.
‘Unfortunately, Trevor suffered a severe bacterial infection – C. diff –before his treatment. He was very ill, had to be pumped full of antibiotics and was put in an isolation ward to stop any spread of the infection. It was a hugely distressing time for him,’ says Michael. It wasn’t until six months later that Trevor was fit enough to have his prostate removed by laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery.
‘Although my tests came back negative, given our family history I wanted more assurance so went to see a consultant at my local hospital in spring 2005,’ says Michael.
‘He offered me a biopsy, which came back negative. Luckily for me he also sent my samples off for further analysis and they did show cancer cells. So I decided in January 2006 to have keyhole surgery like my brother.’
While Michael was recovering from his treatment, Terry was diagnosed with the disease and his prostate was removed in June 2006.
Christopher Eden, consultant urologist at the North Hampshire Hospital in Basingstoke, Hampshire, who treated Michael and Trevor, carried out PSA tests on the men every three months for the first year, and every six months for the four years after that.
‘This is to detect recurrence because prostate cells make PSA wherever they are in the body. This PSA leaches into the bloodstream and signals cancer and allows planning of further treatment if necessary,’ he says.
‘The genetic link in prostate cancer is indisputable. We know that abnormalities on certain chromosomes increase the risk of developing it. These variants can now be tested for using blood tests or a swab of cells from inside the mouth.’
Common side effects of prostate removal include incontinence and erectile dysfunction for some months following surgery, but Michael admits that for him and Trevor, the biggest difficulty was depression.
Prostate cancer cells – the prostate is a small gland in the male reproductive system and its main function is to produce seminal fluid
‘The prostate is part of being a man and psychologically I imagine it had the same effect on us as having a hysterectomy might on a woman. I felt inadequate and vulnerable and for a couple of years I took antidepressants.
‘For Trevor, everything had been made doubly difficult because he’d had to recover from C. diff as well.
‘Although we recovered physically, the emotional scars were tougher to heal. We were running a building business and it had to take a back seat as we recovered. We’d been very successful so that was also a blow. Luckily we had the support of our families and we have pulled through and are getting on with our lives again.’
But Michael – who has two sons, Paul, 37, and Leigh, 35 – adds: ‘My brothers and I all have boys and the chances are one or more of them may suffer from it. When you are young you don’t think about getting ill, but we will be making sure they have regular PSA checks.
‘Our brother Derek saved our lives – I hope that our experience can save not only our sons’ lives but those of men reading our story, who may look at their family history and realise there is a chance they are at risk.’