Northern Ireland

Testicular cancer: Student tells of degree success after diagnosis

Ethan McLaughlin
Image caption A swollen testicle suggested that something was "terribly wrong", Ethan McLaughlin said

Cancer is a shocking diagnosis for anyone to receive, perhaps ever more so for young people.

That is the situation that faced Ethan McLaughlin earlier this year when he was told he had testicular cancer.

The 21-year-old has been through surgery and chemotherapy, yet in spite of everything he has managed to finish his degree with first class honours.

Ethan, who is from Birmingham, came to Belfast to study international politics at Queen's University.

He said he became aware of troubling physical symptoms in March.

"It was very clear for me that I needed to go and get checked out," he said.

Image caption Ethan finished his international politics degree at Queen's University in spite of his cancer

"My testicle had started to expand to a size where I thought something was terribly wrong.

"I also had some of the additional symptoms that I had seen when I had done research - my nipples had become erect and I had lower abdominal pain.

"When I put it all together in my head I thought: 'This is something I should prepare myself for.'"

Odd

After treatment and surgery, Ethan and his girlfriend Alicia Brittain had to confront issues they both thought would be some way off in the future.

Chemotherapy leaves men at risk of being infertile, so Ethan chose to have his sperm frozen, an experience he describes as "strange".

"Thinking long term, I made provision for that possibility," he said.

"It was an odd conversation, not a difficult one, about having kids, having to think about our lives into our 30s and 40s."

Image caption Not being able to help Ethan was the "hardest part", his girlfriend Alicia Brittain said

Alicia, who is in her third year of a philosophy degree at Queen's University, said the experience has been difficult.

"Ethan was always so healthy - I thought it wouldn't happen to him but it did," she said.

"It was hard seeing him being treated with chemotherapy because there is nothing you can do.

"The hardest part is not being able to help at all, you just have to wait it out."

Removed

Testicular cancer is relatively rare and it occurs mainly in young men.

Prof Joe O'Sullivan is the clinical director of oncology at the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.

"In Northern Ireland we might expect between 60 and 80 cases per year, with about 2,000 cases per year in the UK," he said.

"It's unusual because it is a cancer affecting younger men, between their late teens and early 30s."

Image caption Some patients do not need treatment after having a testicle removed, Prof Joe O'Sullivan said

Prof O'Sullivan said the primary thing for men to look out for is a lump or swelling on the testes, adding the vast majority of patients with testicular cancer get cured.

"It is thankfully one of the best results we have with cancer therapy.

"The testicle can be removed by surgery and some patients don't need any treatment at all after that.

"Sometimes they will need radiotherapy or chemotherapy."

Strenuous

Ethan says the specialist nurses from Macmillian Cancer Support who helped him were a great support.

Heather Monteverde from the charity said a cancer diagnosis can be particularly challenging for young people.

Image caption Young people can find a cancer diagnosis to be a "struggle", Heather Monteverde said

"They can feel like a fish out of water in the hospital, most people there are old enough to be their grandparents and they can really struggle with that," she said.

"They have fairly strenuous treatment at a time when their friends are out socialising and having gap years, as well as all the studying and career choices.

"So it is difficult and Macmillan nurses help with that."

Ethan is now looking forward to a graduation ceremony, celebrating his first class degree at the end of the year.

"Since coming back to Belfast from getting treatment in Birmingham I have tried to - not to be clichéd - make the most of things," he said.

"I want to try to tick off as many experiences as I possibly can while I have the opportunity."