Surviving and thriving after cancer
Peter Dornan has been working as a physiotherapist for over 50 years, including stints with the Wallabies, Kangaroos and Queensland Reds. For the past two decades, he has also been a passionate advocate for men’s health, for which he was recently named Queensland’s 2020 Senior Australian of the Year. Here, he recalls the personal experience that inspired him to found the Brisbane Prostate Cancer Support Network.
In 1996, I was a fit and healthy 52-year-old physiotherapist. I felt invincible. Then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
To add to the shock of diagnosis, I found that virtually any invasive treatment I could undertake had the potential to have nasty side effects. At the time, however, I considered surgery — radical prostatectomy — to be my best chance of survival.
The procedure left me severely incontinent, to the extent that it seriously impacted on my lifestyle as well as my professional career, emotional health, exercise activity and sex life. I became fairly despondent, and even depressed — a new and frightening emotion for me.
The frustration, anger and rage I felt led me to achieve two important outcomes. Firstly, over time, I developed a program to treat incontinence. This involved, basically, designing a strong exercise program for the pelvic floor muscles which were progressively overloaded by integrating the abdominal muscles, as well as developing a super-fit neuromuscular reflex circuitry. My experience led me to write a book outlining the program, Conquering Incontinence.
Secondly, I formed the Brisbane Prostate Cancer Support Group (now the Brisbane Prostate Cancer Support Network). From this, I hoped to find some answers to assist me and the many others I soon found were fellow sufferers. I started by putting an ad in the newspaper, inviting fellow patients to meet. Seventy men and their partners turned up to that first meeting, and the group is now one of the largest of its type in the country, with well over 1,000 men and their partners on the mailing list.
The aim of the group was to fulfil the unmet needs of men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer. This involved educating men, as well as their partners, on all aspects of managing prostate cancer, including dealing with the diagnosis, treatment options, and understanding the side effects of treatment. As we consider prostate cancer to be a family disease, we encourage partners to be involved on all levels.
After seven years of battling to regain my health, I decided I needed a sense of closure, so in 2003 — at 60 years of age — I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. The achievement left me with a tremendous sense of pride.
Six years later, in December 2009, at age 66, I tackled Mt Aconcagua in the Andes (7,010 metres) as a continual celebration of life and to raise awareness of the ongoing need for men to be mindful of their health. After eight days of atrocious conditions, high winds, minus 30 degree temperatures and blizzards at the summit, our expedition was finally turned around about 1,500 metres from the summit.
Five years later, in August 2014, at age 71, I was again feeling the need for another physical challenge. I ventured to the rugged wilderness of the Caucasus Mountains in outback Russia, where I tackled Mt Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe at 5,642 metres.
After seven days of intense climbing, I managed to approach within 300 metres of the summit — about an hour away, I was experiencing hallucinations, a sign of high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), so it was considered prudent that this would be ‘close enough’. The victory was in the attempt.
Most recently, in June 2018, I ventured to the Italian Alps and climbed around Gran Paradiso Mountain and National Park. The mountain is not known so much for its height (though at 4,061 metres, it’s still the highest mountain in Italy), as for its wild rugged beauty, as the name suggests.
At 75, it was a tremendously liberating experience — and I hope to have plenty more of those.
For information about prostate cancer, contact the Prostate Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.