When John O’Kelly was hit with the devastating news he had prostate cancer, his world was turned upside down.
As a fit and active former serviceman, the diagnosis came as a bolt out of the blue.
Surprised with the results and determined to carry on living life to the full John, 66, went against the advice of NHS doctors who suggested he should do nothing but watch and wait.
Instead, the grandfather-of-three headed to Prague where he was treated with cutting-edge proton beam therapy, which is not available in the UK.
John was initially diagnosed after a medical check revealed abnormalities in his prostate, a small gland just below the bladder.
He had requested the checks after experiencing a sudden and frequent need to visit the bathroom.
John, from Oundle, said: “I was aware where this sort of thing might lead so I asked to go and have a full medical. They ended up looking at my prostate further and after two weeks they confirmed I had cancer.”
Around 45,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK each year, according to statistics from Cancer Research UK, making it the most common male cancer.
Each year, more than 10,000 British men die from the disease.
John’s tumour was in the early stages and it had not spread outside the prostate, so consultants advised active surveillance.
Through 18 months of so-called ‘watchful waiting’ John saw his PSA levels steadily rising. A PSA test detects levels of a protein which is associated with prostate cancer.
John said: “I wasn’t happy. I just thought ‘This isn’t me’, I’m not used to sitting and doing nothing.
“I thought it was only going to go one way, and by then I might have no option but to have fairly aggressive treatments, which I did not want to do.
“I had already read about how surgery could leave you with incontinence.”
Surgery and conventional radiotherapy can often leave men with bowel and urinary problems, as well as sexual dysfunction.
An American study presented at the Particle Therapy Co-Operative Group Annual Congress said surgery carried a 75 per cent risk of impotence and a 30 per cent risk of long-term incontinence. Conventional radiotherapy also had a 40 per cent risk of impotence.
John said: “It leaves you in an uncomfortable area and you don’t know which way to turn.
“If I was 80-odd it might have been different but I still consider myself healthy and active. I used to do a lot of sports like marathon running and cycling.”
John researched proton beam therapy after remembering the case of Ashya King, who made headlines across the world back in 2014 when he travelled to Prague to receive treatment for a brain tumour.
His parents had taken him out of NHS care and the controversial decision sparked an international manhunt, which even saw Ashya’s parents briefly held in police custody.
John, who is originally from Ireland, spoke to doctors in the UK who gave him the green light to travel to the Czech Republic for treatment.
He said: “I went back to the specialist with 25 questions and then made a decision for me. Over Christmas I decided to go to Prague and I travelled out in February.
“They were exceptional. I had an examination and thought there might be a six month waiting list. I came straight back to the UK to arrange things and I was back in Prague within a week.
“They were reassuring and very professional and put me at ease from the word go.”
Proton therapy is a type of radiotherapy, and uses an accelerated beam of positively-charged particles to attack cancerous cells.
John was treated with five hyper fractions over a two-week period, going in for treatment every other day.
He is now free of cancer and has regular PSA tests to monitor his prostate.
He said: “I think with the NHS, they don’t want to spend large funds on prostate cancer in older men. They do offer other treatments but it’s a sort of ‘take it or leave it’ approach. They offer a number of options but not proton beam therapy.
“Proton beam therapy will be over here in 2018 but I think the plan is to focus on childhood cancers, rather than prostate cancer which generally effects older men.”
The Department of Health has invested £250million into two new centres, one at Manchester’s Christie Hospital and one in London. They are expected to open their doors in 2018.
Most patients visiting Prague’s Proton Therapy Centre from the UK are men in their fifties, sixties and seventies who, like John, are dissatisfied with treatment and care on the NHS back home.
Proton beam therapy can also be used to treat both adults and children with brain tumours, head and neck tumours, gastrointestinal tumours, Lymphomas, and breast cancer.
Dr Jiri Kubes, medical director of the Proton Therapy Centre, said: “One of the major benefits of proton therapy is that higher doses can be used to target the tumour, increasing the effectiveness and minimising damage to the surrounding tissue.
“In the early stage of prostate cancer, the Proton Therapy Centre has a 97 per cent curability rate and it can be treated in just five sessions.
“Proton therapy also has lower risk of side effects of and fewer of the complications associated with the high toxicity of conventional radiation.
“We are seeing a large number of patients from the UK who do not want to pay for treatment in the US, which can stretch into hundreds of thousands of pounds, but who are determined not to watch and wait.
“Our Czech centre offers the best service quality and mean that prostate cancer patients can continue to enjoy the same quality of life as they did before.”