THE first football match, your first bike ride and learning how to shave. They are all life events that help shape a father-son relationship.
What you don’t expect to top that list is cancer.
However, for Daniel Marks and Jack Dyson the disease is the defining turning points in their friendships with dads, Ken and John.
First their own cancer battles, Daniel was diagnosed at 17 and Jack at 27.
Then years later, they helped their dads face it, in a “bizarre role reversal”, Daniel tells The Sun.
It’s good to talk
Serious illness isn’t something that tends to leave you with fond memories.
Yet, for Daniel and Ken, Jack and John, cancer helped forge their unbreakable bonds, and inspired them to talk about their health – something still alien to so many men.
Now, they hope their shared lessons will help change the way all men talk about their health – both physical and mental.
The friends co-founded the charity Father & Son Day five years ago, with that mission in mind.
It’s grown, gathering support from celebrities including the Duke of Cambridge, Noel Gallagher, Richard Madden, Elton John and Jack Whitehall.
‘It’s about creating a brotherhood’
Each Father’s Day they call on all men to wear blue shirts in solidarity and to use the hashtag #inspiringmen to share stories of the dads, sons, brothers, uncles, friends and mentors who have guided them.
“It’s about creating a brotherhood,” dad-of-three, Jack, 43, explains.
“When women fall ill, there is a sisterhood that just exists around them. Each friend has a role, the nurturing friend, the practical one, and they step up.
“Men are robbed of that – it’s fight or flight. You have the friends who try to ‘fix it’ for you, and those that freeze and disappear.”
It’s a feeling both Daniel, partner at The Communications Store, and Jack, a former journalist and now senior marketing director, can relate to, having both wanted to run and hide from their own cancer.
‘I was 17 when I got cancer’
Spot the signs of testicular cancer
TESTICULAR cancer isn't a common form of the disease, but it is the most common in young men aged 15 to 49.
Around 2,200 men are diagnosed every year in the UK.
Caught early it is one of the most curable forms of the disease.
Almost all men (99 per cent) survive a year or longer after being diagnosed and 98 per cent survive five years or longer.
Men are encouraged to check their balls for the signs of cancer every month.
Signs to watch out for include:
- a lump in your testicle
- one testicule feeling firmer than the other
- a difference between testicles
- a dull ache or sharp pain in your scrotum, which can come and go
- a feeling of heaviness in your scrotum
If you notice a swelling, lump or any other change see your GP.
Lumps can be caused by lots of things and testicular cancer is rare, but it is better to get it checked out.
Daniel, now 47 and living in London with his husband Paul, was at school when he noticed a swelling on one of his testicles.
At the age of 17, he put it down to experiencing the tail end of puberty and labelled it “just another change”.
“At that point, I didn’t come from a family where health issues were discussed,” he tells The Sun.
“I had a very close relationship with my father but health issues weren’t something I felt comfortable talking to him about.”
So when the tumour grew so big it burst blood vessels in his testicle, Daniel had no idea what was happening.
Thirty years have passed, but he still recalls the day as if it were yesterday.
“It was unbelievably painful,” he says. “It’s what sent me to the GP.”
His doctor told a teenage Daniel the pain was likely to be one of two things: a twisted testicle, known as torsion, or cancer.
“It’s not a word I’d had to really think about before,” he admits.
“At 17 the only other people with experiences of cancer in my life were old, or had died.
“I honestly thought my life was coming to an end, I didn’t know any cancer survivors.”
Catching it early saved my life
In the grand scheme of things, Daniel was lucky.
His testicular cancer was classified as stage 1 – one of the most curable forms of the disease.
He was referred from Queen Mary’s Hospital in London to The Royal Marsden in Sutton, where he was operated on and underwent chemotherapy.
“As a teenager who was quite happy being centre of attention, I just got on with it,” he says.
The day he was given the all clear, Daniel said he remembers walking from the CT scanner to his parents in the waiting room.
I had a dull ache in my lower abdomen. It felt like I had been kicked in the balls the day before
In a moment, as he broke the news to them, he describes that previous six-month period as “collapsing in on itself”.
“It was as though I had never experienced it all,” he tells The Sun.
“It was like I was right back at the beginning, like that moment was just a matter of days ago.
“It’s amazing really how the brain equips you to deal with these things.”
Daniel went back to school, and undeterred stood up in front of the whole school and gave an assembly on his experience.
Little did he know at that moment, a boy five years below him in the school ranks was destined to go through the same ordeal.
Jack remembers seeing Daniel at school, post-chemo and having lost his hair.
They weren’t friends at the time, but years later when Jack’s sister Jenny introduced the pair they put the pieces of the jigsaw together.
‘I felt like I’d been kicked in the balls’
Jack, now a dad-of-three who lives in Bath with his wife Jade Parfitt, was working in London when he first noticed symptoms, at the age of 27.
“I had a dull ache in my lower abdomen,” he tells The Sun. “It felt like I had been kicked in the balls the day before.
“The offending testicle got bigger, and more sore and I sort of half suspected it might be something serious.”
Jack booked an appointment with his GP, and after a quick examination the doctor gave him a letter and told him to go straight to Charing Cross Hospital’s A&E department.
Share your stories of the inspiring men in your life
FATHER & Son Day was set up in 2014 by Daniel and Jack, to open up the conversation around men's heath.
This Sunday is the fifth anniversary of the campaign which asks all men to share stories and photos of the inspirational men in their lives on social media using the hashtag #inspiringmen and tagging @FatherandSonDay.
The charity also raises money for The Royal Marsden hospital.
You can donate £5 by texting MARSDEN to 70800.
The money raised helps fund a unique programme which trains multidisciplinary robotic surgeons of the future.
Specialists working across gynaecological, urological and colorectal units are trained to use the da Vinci robots in surgery.
To date, the money raised has funded three surgeons to complete their training.
The next step is to raise money to fund specialist counsellors to help younger cancer patients during their treatment and recovery.
To find out more visit The Royal Marsden website here.
“He told me, ‘It may be nothing but it may be something, and I don’t want to get your hopes up or say the wrong thing’.
“It was ambiguous, and slightly alarming.”
After removing his trousers for a third time, while a radiographer performed an ultrasound, Jack said he joked: “What’s on the telly doc, anything good?”
The response took the wind out of him.
“The doctor just said, ‘Nothing good, I’m afraid. There’s definitely a tumour and it will have to come out’,” Jack recalls.
‘The hardest bit was telling my parents’
His parents were away, so Jack, who was newly single, called his sister while standing at Hammersmith bus station and cried for the first time in years.
“The hardest bit was talking to my parents and telling them,” he admits.
“My sisters had spread the word, but I could tell mum was wired, and so obviously worried but trying to be businesslike to cover it.
“Dad was clearly distressed, he’s lost one of his sisters to cancer the year before.
“We tried to be blokey over the phone, and dropped a few puns about my upcoming emasculation, but behind it all was a huge lump in my throat.”
Like Daniel, Jack was lucky.
He had his testicle removed – declining the offer of a fake, silicone replacement – and after speaking to his doctors opted not to have chemo.
It proved the right decision, when more tests showed his cancer hadn’t spread.
Then our dads faced cancer too
While their physical battles are over, for both Daniel and Jack the mental scars remain.
Jack says: “I was forced to confront my own mortality in my 20s, while most people don’t do this until they’re at least in their 60s.”
While grappling with their own mortality, the pair then had to face cancer yet again.
Both watched as their dads were diagnosed with the disease.
In Jack’s case, his dad John was diagnosed with aggressive bowel cancer, that had already spread throughout his abdomen by the time it was caught.
“It was too far gone to have chemo,” Jack says.
“If he had gone to the doctors sooner, we don’t know, he could still be here but, who knows?”
His father’s death knocked Jack’s whole family for six, but in his last months Jack says he grew closer to his dad, a former journalist, an “old-school hack”.
“We came full circle, opening up about our cancer changed our relationship. A beautiful friendship unfurled, alongside the traditional father-son relationship, it was very poignant.”
‘It helped dad to know I survived’
Daniel can testify. His dad Ken was told he had prostate cancer in his 60s.
“The really strange thing was getting my head around the fact my dad had cancer after me,” he says.
“I think it helped him, he saw his son survive cancer and thought, ‘I’m going to survive this too’.
“We were on an equal footing, and understood each other on a deeper level.”
We want to inspire men to talk
It was five years ago, after having dinner together, that Daniel and Jack came up with the idea to set up Father & Son Day, to raise money for The Royal Marsden and inspire men to open up.
They’ve since had more than 170million views on their social media campaigns.
They have also raised enough money to train three surgeons on state-of-the-art da Vinci robots, which transform surgery for cancer patients.
MORE ON MEN’S HEALTH
Their next aim is to fund specialist counsellors for young cancer patients, to help them and their friends and family cope with the ordeal.
Daniel says: “Women are brilliant at this, they check their breasts, they go for smear tests. There is an understand, a regime they go through to take care of themselves.
“Men just don’t have that, but that’s what this campaign is about.
“Saying it’s OK to talk about it and share experiences, bring it up as a conversation and gain support.
“It’s about telling men, you don’t have to be the strong and silent type.”
Quite the opposite, in fact. The message from Daniel and Ken, Jack and John is clear – cancer was pivotal in their father-son relationships.
Now, they hope their cancers will mean you and the men in your life, never have to face the same ordeal.
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