Patrick Howard - All of That Could Have Been Prevented: A New Awareness after Battling Against Cancer

Penile Cancer? I had never heard of it.

I had been suffering some itchiness and redness that came and went. I tried a few medicated creams, but they didn’t help. Finally, I got an appointment with my physician who took one look and said: “I hate to say this, but I think you’ve got penile cancer.”

It was the 9th of October 2020 – my 61st birthday – and suddenly, I was reeling. I was shocked, and confused, and in a daze. I think it’s the only way to describe it. A daze. 

I later discovered I was not alone. That same year more than 36,000 men worldwide were diagnosed with penile cancer, and an estimated 13,000 died from it. The disease is typically caused by the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV).

They did not know what to do

My doctor explained it was aggressive and can spread rampantly. He also said that he had seen about five cases similar to mine in the last ten years. I felt as though I was in the hands of experts, but the experts didn't know a great deal about it. In more common cancers, doctors can confidently select the best treatment for each particular case. But with penile cancer, they don’t have a lot of science to rely on. I was told they would basically give it their best shot. Not exactly the encouraging news I was hoping for.

Within days, I was in an operating theatre in Manchester, England, undergoing a partial penectomy, where they cut off a large part of my penis. That was followed by other surgeries to remove some lymph nodes around my groin and inside the pelvic area. These were big and lengthy operations which lasted 10 or 12 hours in total. A lot of morphine was used, let's put it that way. Following the surgery, I received 25 sessions of radiotherapy.

The fight continues

For a while, it was all looking good, and I was feeling fine. Then a lump appeared, and I had to begin the dreaded chemotherapy. It's heavy duty, nasty; it's full on, and there's a lot of it. Once again, I was left with reason for hope. But one year after the chemo treatment, the lumps started to reappear and I’m now about to start a second round of chemo. This can be a very nasty disease.

This whole experience has been hard. You know, physically, it's been very painful, and emotionally it’s been hard at times keeping it all together and being upbeat.  

A new understanding

If there is one positive takeaway, it’s that I have become a passionate champion of the HPV vaccine. Most penile cancers can be prevented with a couple of jabs before boys become sexually active. The vaccine was not available when I was young, but nowadays young men can avoid ever going through what I’ve been through. The HPV vaccine also protects against cervical cancer, anal cancer, and head and neck cancers.

Awareness is lagging behind

Unfortunately, I've got a lot of friends in England who just don’t know this. They don't know that these cancers later in life could be eliminated or greatly reduced. No one would have to go to hospital. No one would have to lay in bed for three months, enduring great pain, and suffering, and expense. All that could be prevented with a simple vaccine.

Yet there are some countries in Europe that lack any HPV vaccination programme, or what is available is restricted to girls only. That’s a tragedy that needs to be urgently corrected.

From what I have seen, there is a genuine level of ignorance and complacency about HPV cancers all across Europe, and it’s putting lives at risk. Vaccination is not rocket science, just a shot in the arm.