University professor details impact of prostate cancer diagnosis on World Mental Health Day

Posted 10th October 2021

A Birkenhead-born University professor has been raising awareness of the mental impact of a cancer diagnosis, since being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012.

75-year old Professor Robert Lee, from Birkenhead, says that the mental impact of his diagnosis become so serious, he became unable to concentrate on the things he usually loved doing and was becoming severely depressed. He’s been speaking to mark World Mental Health Day on 10th October.

(Professor Lee (centre) is pictured with Friends of Birkenhead Park, who were recently awarded the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service)

“I was generally aware of the symptoms of prostate cancer, but in retrospect I should have known more” Robert explains. “I’d be chairing meetings at the University or at one of the community groups I’m a part of and would suddenly have to excuse myself to use the bathroom. At first, I thought I’d consumed too many herbal teas. My PSA levels were normal whenever I had them checked. I simply assumed, incorrectly, that the problem was a result of weaker bladder control as a result of the ageing process.”

Raised levels of PSA (prostate-specific antigen) in the urine can be an indicator of prostate cancer. Further checks revealed the Robert’s levels were marginally higher than normal and further investigations through his GP led to Robert being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“I received the full range of treatment at both Arrowe Park and The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, from robotic surgery, hormone therapy to radiotherapy. Initially, things were looking very positive. But about three years ago, I was told the radiotherapy treatment hadn’t worked and the only option left was chemotherapy with limited success rates.

“This sparked a serious bout of depression. I stopped being able to concentrate on my academic work, I no longer wanted to be an active part of the community groups in which I was involved, and I became withdrawn from my family. I was on the verge of a catatonic state – not really moving or speaking, not eating properly and not interacting with my loved ones.

“Fortunately, I was able to access support through The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre which really helped. I was put on anti-depression medication. I also found cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to be incredibly useful – it helped me to change the way I think and behave, and to respond more effectively to the issues I faced.

“Now, I’m feeling so much better. I’m still receiving support over the phone when I need it, but I’m no longer taking anti-depression medication. I’m back doing my academic work, writing a number of overdue history books, as well as working with the Friends of Birkenhead Park, the community group I’m really passionate about. I’m enjoying the things I used to do, in particular family events, and taking care of myself, eating well and getting out and about.

“After six cycles of chemotherapy, the only active cancer treatment in the last eight months had been a quarterly hormone injection. However, a recent jump in my PSA level will mean that I will be seeing a little bit more of the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in the coming weeks with the start of another treatment cycle.”

Professor Lee continues: “Whilst all cases are different, looking back on my experience with prostate cancer has taught me some lessons. First, men need to be more aware of the symptoms of prostate cancer. We seldom talk even amongst our friends about urinary problems, despite the fact that an early diagnosis will almost invariably lead to a better outcome. Second, it is vital to discuss your diagnosis with your family and close acquaintances. I have been immensely lucky to have had the full support of my wife and family who have helped me through what has been a very difficult process, both emotionally and by suggesting alternative therapies.

“Third, if you, like many other patients, suffer from depression as a result of your diagnosis and the progression of your disease, seek professional assistance. The feeling of despair which overcame me was something I had never experienced before in my life. The quality of the professional support by staff at Clatterbridge Cancer Centre has been excellent in both psychiatry and therapy. The team work very hard and they are there to help you and they make a huge difference. There is no need to be embarrassed by the mental health impact of any cancer. Proper advice can enable you to deal with some very difficult issues in a way that will hopefully improve your prognosis.”

Debbie de Jonge is Information and Support Lead at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust. She says: “A cancer diagnosis is very difficult to deal with. The mental health impact can often be catastrophic and the effects of it might be felt at any time throughout a patient’s experience, as Robert found several years after his initial diagnosis. Dealing with cancer can affect all parts of someone’s life, from their working and social life to interacting with their loved ones, their sleep and their appetite.

“We are there to support a patient and their family, no matter what point in their journey they are or how severe their mental health problems may be. We can sign post a patient to group support, holistic therapies or social activities, right through to working with our dedicated consultant psychologist, and psychiatrists who can prescribe medication. Our patients may also have access to a dedicated Clinical Nurse Specialist to support them and their family.

“We have a Cancer Information Centre at each of our three centres, where patients can pop in for a chat or to pick up some information, if that’s what they’re looking for.

“At The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, we believe in treating the patient as a whole person. Their medical needs are a priority but we like to take a holistic approach to our care and look at all their needs.”

For more information about the mental health support available to you on your cancer journey, please speak with your GP or treating team, or pop into our Cancer Information Centres at our Wirral, Aintree and Liverpool sites.