When self-employed roofer and proud grandad Ken Bashford received an email from Prostate Cancer UK inviting him to take part in local celebrity Jeff Stelling’s latest marathon effort to fight the disease, he was “over the moon”.
It was a much-welcomed high point in what has been a rollercoaster ride for the 60-year-old, from Marske, since being diagnosed with prostate cancer himself following a simple blood test in May 2015.
Ken, who is still undergoing treatment for “incurable but containable” prostate cancer, and taking part in a clinical trial called Stampede, met the Sky Soccer Saturday presenter last year, during the first day of the 2016 March for Men, as Stelling walked 10 marathons in 10 days.
Despite feeling tired and unwell due to the effects of his treatment that day, Ken “dragged himself out of bed” in the hope of catching a glimpse of the star – and possibly getting the chance to say thanks for his help in supporting men like him.
But he was delighted when Gary Haines of Prostate Cancer UK invited him to accompany the down-to-earth Hartlepudlian from Marske Square to his beloved Marske United FC – and when Jeff himself also took the time to find out more about his battle with the disease. Mr Haines also took Ken’s contact details, saying he would be in touch.
He was true to his word and Ken recently received an email inviting him to accompany Jeff and the team as they walk into Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium later this year.
Boro’s ground is one of 40 stadiums the presenter will visit between June 2 and June 16, as he ups his game to complete 15 marathons in 15 days this time around.
During the March For Men challenge, Jeff will head north from Exeter City FC to Newcastle United FC – a 400-mile walk from St James Park to St James’ Park.
Ken will join the walkers on the penultimate day, Thursday 15 June, as Stelling sets off from Darlington and heads back to hometown club Hartlepool United, via the Riverside.
Ken explained: “They said it “would be an honour” if I’d walk with them again – I’ll never forget those words.
“When I met Jeff last year and thanked him for all he does to raise awareness of Prostate Cancer and funds, he said: “No, thank you. It’s men like you who we do it for.”
“He was so genuine and took time out to find out about me and what I was going through.”
As well as supporting the local celebrity on his epic march this year, Ken, who is undergoing treatment at The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, is also hoping his honest and touching account of his battle with the disease will encourage more men to look out for any signs, be aware of risks and share any concerns or unusual symptoms with their GP straight away.
Proud Ken, who has built up a reputable roofing company over a career spanning almost thirty years, openly admits to breaking down in tears in front of wife, Elaine, 57, and sons Dan, 23, and Andrew, 20, at various points during his “journey”.
He talks candidly about the “excruciating pain” and “embarrassment” of some of the procedures he has had to endure along the way – and the fact that his “love life was gone almost overnight” once treatment started.
But despite all of this, his positive attitude and the gratitude he feels towards his loved ones, close friends and hospital staff – not to mention Brady his beloved dog – shines through.
Ken, who was diagnosed after asking his GP for a PSA blood test due to the death of his brother from cancer, said: “I take my dog out for a walk along the seafront and we stop and look out to sea along the cliffs. I say to my dog: “It’s lovely this, isn’t it? I’m not giving this up”.
“Anybody who hears me must think I’m mad! But it’s in those moments I realise I have so much to live for.
“I have a wonderful family and I’ve learned since I was diagnosed that you have to fight this prostate cancer all the time. When it knocks you down, you have to get back up there or it will win!”
It is his beloved family whom Ken credits with helping him to stay so positive throughout his battle with the disease.
He describes wife Elaine as an “angel” and “bear hugs” from son Dan that have kept him going, as well as the support from son Andrew, their partners and Elaine’s sons Chris, Phil and Mike from a previous relationship.
“I will battle this Prostate Cancer for as long as I can for all of them,” says Ken, whose diagnosis came completely out of the blue after being given a clean bill of health from his GP following a number of routine tests for men of his age – what Ken describes as an “MOT”.
“I’d just passed my MOT and some X-Rays I had for a cough had come back fine, so I was buzzing!” said Ken.
“But I asked my doctor for the PSA test as well, as my brother died of a male cancer.
“I didn’t really know what it was, but I had heard little bits about it and thought I was getting to that age. I explained about my brother, and the doctor said he was happy for me to have the test, even though I had no symptoms at all.”
The Prostate Specific Antigen or PSA blood test is usually ordered by doctors when male patients present with potential symptoms of prostate problems like benign conditions such as infection, inflammation or enlarged prostate, as well as prostate cancer.
It measures levels of the protein PSA – with high levels indicating a potential problem.
When Ken’s GP received his PSA results from the hospital, they were noticeably high, meaning his GP had to perform the examination in surgery many men dread.
But for a few moments of embarrassment and discomfort, the GP was able to confirm “something didn’t feel right” – and there was a 50/50 chance it was cancer.
Ken said: “It was embarrassing and I think this kind of examination is a big taboo with men.
“But because I had that examination, I was able to be immediately referred to Dr David Chadwick at James Cook Hospital.
“I walked the 100 yards from the surgery to my van in a daze and sat there for five minutes with my head across the steering wheel, thinking “this could be serious.”
Ken “can’t remember” the three-mile journey from his surgery to his home, but when he returned, his wife immediately knew he’d received bad news.
“She can read me like a book,” said Ken
“I told her, “they think I’ve got prostate cancer” and she dropped the two shopping bags she was carrying.
“Later, she reasoned there was a 50/50 chance, so I might not have cancer at all.”
Ten days later, the same examination was performed at hospital and Ken was referred for CT and bone scans and a biopsy.
Ken also went through “one of the most painful experiences of his life” when a biopsy was performed.
The need for this procedure is now, thankfully, being reduced, as MRI scans are now being used at James Cook as a first line following an abnormal PSA test.
But at the time, the biopsy, despite being painful, at least swiftly confirmed the diagnosis of prostate cancer – and ensured Ken’s treatment could begin as quickly as possible.
“I was terrified when I had to go back for the results a week later,” admits Ken.
“Elaine and my two lads were with me and I didn’t want to go through that door that said “Oncology”.
“All three of them got me through that door, which means a lot to me.
“I stopped in my tracks, my eldest lad Dan said, “If you don’t go through there, you don’t know if you’ve got it or not. You could be worrying about nothing, or if you’ve got it, you can get treated”.
Already shaking as Dr David Chadwick, consultant urologist opened his file, Ken admits his bottom lip started trembling as he was told he had aggressive prostate cancer and it couldn’t be cured.
However, Dr Chadwick said it could be contained with medication that needed to start straight away.
Ken began injections of Degarelix hormone therapy in his stomach immediately.
The injections caused his stomach to swell “like a rugby ball” and caused pain and tiredness – but the treatment worked, as his PSA levels gradually came down.
He was then offered the opportunity to go on the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) supported Stampede trial, which involved taking hormone medication every day, as well as the monthly injection.
He agreed and says he feels reassured by being so closely monitored as part of the clinical trial.
“The way I look at it is that this could help provide a cure for patients in future,” he said.
“Every morning I get up and take four Abiraterone Acetate tablets, followed by 160mg of Enzalutamide after breakfast – and a steroid tablet every day.
“Once a month, I get my bloods taken at my GP and they check everything. I contact the hospital 36 hours later for my results, especially my PSA.”
Due to the pain and fatigue caused by the monthly injection, Ken was also able to move onto an alternative treatment of a three-monthly implant.
He had come to dread the monthly injection due to the side effects, despite acknowledging it was literally keeping him alive.
“I felt my quality of life was getting low so in December 2015, me, Elaine and Dr Van Der Voet made a big decision to switch to the implant to see if it could keep my PSA levels down just as effectively, without the side effects,” said Ken.
“For 15 to 20 seconds every three months, having the implant really hurts, but now I have no side effects like a painful, swollen stomach – and most importantly, the implant is still keeping my PSA levels low.
“I get tired several days before and after having my implant, but a power nap helps!”
Since starting on the implant, Ken has also gained invaluable support from a local Prostate Cancer support group which meets on the last Monday of each month at the Jack Hatfield Centre in Acklam at 6.30pm.
By chance, he also met another Prostate Cancer sufferer on exactly the same treatment regime as him, when shopping for Prostate Cancer T-Shirts on Facebook.
Ken, who also underwent successful radiotherapy treatment for a cancer spot on a rib in October last year, says: “I met Alan in person for the first time just before Christmas in Harrogate. We got on brilliantly, as did both our wives and intend to meet up again very soon.”
December was a happy time all round for Ken, who enjoyed a brilliant family Christmas, the celebration of his sixth wedding anniversary, turning 60 and his wife’s birthday.
In January 2017, his PSA test remained low and he enjoyed a trip to Dubai and a cruise to celebrate all the recent happy family events.
He is now looking forward to meeting Jeff again in June with renewed optimism for the future.
In the meantime, his two grandsons and the rest of the family remain “an inspiration”.
“Harry, who is six, will now pick up the phone and ask “are you all right grandad?” and I regularly get pictures of Nathaniel who is two-and-a-half sent to me by his mum,” said Ken.
“I have nothing but thanks for my amazing family, Mr Chadwick and his staff, Prostate Cancer Nurse Patricia McClurey, Dr Van Der Voet and his wonderful nurses who are so kind and helpful, his trial assistants Lisa and Lynne who are only ever a phone call away, Dr Fish, my GP and practice nurse Anthea. Without these people I couldn’t do it.
“I want to encourage any men who might be worried about any symptoms they might have, or think they might need a PSA test to go to their GP without delay and ask.
“My fight goes on and if sharing my story helps one other person, I will be extremely happy.”
To sign up for the March for Men or to find out more, visit www.prostatecanceruk.org/jeffsmarch
More information about the risks factors for Prostate Cancer and possible symptoms can also be found on the Prostate Cancer UK website.