Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 17 November 2016

A year ago, he asked his GP for a PSA blood test. What a shame his request was turned down

Low life | 17 November 2016
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The day after the American people applied a very welcome touch on the brakes to the Enlightenment juggernaut, I went for a walk with my brother, who the day before had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Which is a crying shame because three years ago, after I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he had conscientiously toddled down to the doctor to have himself checked out with a PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) blood test, in case it ran in the family. But the doctor had thought the precaution unnecessary for a man of his comparatively young age (47) and vetoed it.

A fortnight ago he couldn’t pee and went again to the same doctor. This time the doctor agreed to a PSA blood test. When the result came back, his PSA score was 112. For most doctors, ‘normal’ is four and below. My brother’s score was off the scale, in other words. It wasn’t a question of whether he had cancer, but how far it had spread. The morning after Trump’s victory he had received the results of the biopsy on his prostate gland. We’d of course hoped that his ridiculously high PSA score was a ghastly mistake, or that the decimal point was in the wrong place. It was neither. His prostate was diseased; the cancer highly aggressive.

When my cancer was first diagnosed, my brother had invited me out for a long walk. So now it was my turn to invite him out for a post-prostate cancer diagnosis walk. Our walk took us and his three Border terriers, Roxy, Ruby and Taz, across coastal moorland and down to a steep and remote cove. To give the walk a purpose, no matter how spurious, I brought a supermarket ‘bag for life’ and scissors for collecting edible seaweed. Iodine kills cancer cells, reputedly. We could dry and powder the seaweed and sprinkle it on our cornflakes every morning, I thought. Not for one moment do I believe that it would cure us. It was merely a bow in the homeopathic House of Rimmon. I reasoned, however, that snipping at seaweed with kitchen scissors might make us laugh and take our minds off things.

My brother has spent his entire working life as a big, incorruptible Devon and Cornwall policeman. Nowadays he specialises in training other police officers in the art and science of containing public disorder. Sometimes he spends entire days throwing petrol bombs at other policemen or having them thrown at him. He is a judo black belt and built like the proverbial outside lavatory. He is one of the fittest, sanest, healthiest people I know. He loves his job. He lives cleanly and decently and is dedicated to his wife and two adolescent children. That my prostate gland should turn out to be cancerous surprised nobody. Many, I’m sure, assumed it was an apposite kind of long overdue natural justice. But it is heartbreaking that a chap as physically fit and morally upright as my brother should get it, and so early on.

As we trod the saturated fields down to the sea and talked, I was glad to know that his fine sense of humour had remained intact, in spite of his pessimistic assumption that he will be dead and buried by Christmas. He showed me how he has been practising crossing his wrists over his chest in the mirror to see what his laid-out corpse might look like. He did this several times and grinned and waggled his eyebrows at me. Also he told me how, after announcing his diagnosis to his team of police instructors, he came to work one day and found Post-it notes attached to the personal effects on his desk in their shared office. Each item bore a colleague’s name, claiming the item when he died. His West Ham mug, his spoon, his bravery award certificate, even the framed photograph of his pretty daughter had a Post-it stuck to it. My brother said he had taken this as the best possible joke. One of his fellow instructors, however, took him privately aside to express his sympathy. My brother is a hilarious mimic. ‘All those bleeding scumbags out there,’ he said, mimicking the guy’s Bristolian accent to exquisite perfection. ‘None of them get cancer, do they? Why’s that then? Why?’

The path down to the cove was washed away and we had to abseil the last few yards on a rope. At the bottom I got out the seaweed guidebook, positively identified one of the several types strewn about in a stinking heap as carrageen, and we started snipping. Thinking we were searching for something for them to kill, the dogs nosed up the seaweed to a frenzy of excitement. It did make us laugh. It was a crying shame, though, that that doctor hadn’t given him a PSA test when he’d first asked for one.