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Testicular cancer: survivor shares his story

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Clean bill of health: Richard de Whittaker(Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Richard de Whittaker gained a new appreciation for life after surviving advanced testicular cancer.

The recording engineer had to undergo surgery and a gruelling chemotherapy regime for about nine months to get rid of the cancerous cells that had spread throughout his body.

But about five years ago he won the battle and he has been healthy ever since. As part of testicular cancer awareness month, the 41-year-old shared his story with The Royal Gazette.

“You look at each day a little bit differently because having tasted death to a certain degree and being resigned to the fact that you may in fact die, you certainly appreciate life more,” he said.

Mr de Whittaker first noticed some discomfort when he was living on Crete in Greece in 2006.

He was in a shop putting on a new pair of jeans and wondered if he had lifted something too heavy.

“That was the beginning and over time, over the next weeks and months, I started to notice it a lot more,” he said.

He looked up the symptoms online.

“It immediately threw testicular cancer at me and I thought, ‘oh s**t’.”

He decided to wait to go to the doctors until he got home, which at that time was in New York.

But he said: “Even then, I developed a very sort of sheepish attitude about it.

“It was sort of half sheepishness and half fear because of where it was, so I didn’t want to go see a doctor about it because it was embarrassing and it was scary at the same time.

He put off going to the doctors and by May 2010, he was living in Palm Beach, Florida.

“I’d felt really strange all week; I kept having to sit down and I was starting to develop this ache, this sort of aching pain not just in the immediate area but in my back.

“It just felt like my whole body was aching.”

He put it down to partying a bit too hard but by 11pm on May 5, “that mild aching pain turned to severe pain and it felt like I’d been shot”.

In extreme pain, he went to the hospital and was immediately administered a shot of dilaudid — an opioid pain medication.

Tests including a CT scan and MRI determined that he had stage three, bordering on stage four testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen and lymph nodes.

“There was a huge mass behind my stomach as well, which explains all the back pain,” he said.

The affected testicle was surgically removed and he was sent home with painkillers. But once they had worn off, he was almost in exactly the same amount of pain.

Certain that it was not just the after-effects of surgery, he went to the Good Samaritan Medical Centre in Palm Beach.

“They were actually able to determine very quickly that it was even a bit more severe than the other hospital had thought and had spread even more than they had initially thought.”

He started a heavy regime of chemo that lasted for about nine months. Within a week his hair fell out and unable to eat, he started to lose weight rapidly.

The pills he was given to help with the nausea only made him feel worse.

To keep him hydrated, he was given saline solution intravenously between the bouts of chemotherapy.

Having always stayed away from drugs, even aspirin, Mr de Whittaker said he was now in a situation “where they were having to kill me to save me, they were having to kill my cells to save my cells”.

“There was a very low period for me at one point where if I didn’t take the turn upward in the next two days I would have just kept going down and that would have been it for me.”

But thankfully his mother was able to help him through, he said.

“She was the one who was there in the middle of the night, trying to get me to eat something.”

“Come winter time, it was determined that I had in fact won my battle and was pronounced in remission and I’ve been healthy ever since.”

It took about a month after the chemotherapy ended for him to feel physically OK “but mentally you’re still off-kilter because you’re used to being a certain way”.

His hair started to grow back but it took months for the residual chemotherapy drugs to leach out of his system.

For the past five years, he has gone for twice-yearly check-ups to ensure the cancer has not returned. His final test was in January.

Mr de Whittaker said he learnt many things both bad and good through the experience, including gaining a new appreciation for life.

Shortly after he went into remission, his nephew was born.

“It’s been one of the greatest joys in my life to be able to come back to Bermuda and see him grow up and be uncle Riché,” he said.

“It’s just a delight to be here, to be in life, to experience that.”

But there were also plenty of negatives.

“I learnt something about human nature and mortality in that some people just simply cannot deal with mortality.”

As his hair started to fall out, as he lost weight and as he became sicker, his best friends stopped coming to see him and he hasn’t seen them since.

Overall, he described the whole experience as “f******g awful” and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

“It’s hard to really know if some pain you have or some symptom you have is cancer. It’s not like you’ve got a big gash, a big open bleeding wound.

“I had to google my symptoms. I thought I’d maybe developed a little hernia or something from lifting something heavy. I had no idea.

He said he would “absolutely” recommend that men who can tell that something is wrong go see their doctor.

“Don’t be silly, don’t be a silly muppet. Because if you leave it like I did, silly muppet, it get’s worse.

“It gets worse, it doesn’t get better and the stages just keep going up and it could get to a point where it’s untreatable.

“Even though I had left it, I hadn’t left it really long to a point where it was untreatable.”

Difficult journey: Richard de Whittaker(Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Sharing his story: Richard de Whittaker(Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Challenging timel: Richard de Whittaker at one of the worst stages of the chemotherapy treatment for testicular cancer(Photograph supplied)
Seeing the humorous side: Richard de Whittaker, who was undergoing chemotherapy for testicular cancer, with his “mini me”(Photograph supplied)