Like his hero Lance Armstrong he has survived testicular cancer, and now he’s using sport to help save others through his website www.bustinyourballs.org. This is the story of Thomas Garrod’s lucky escape.
When 27-year-old Thomas Garrod started getting back pain in 2004, he had no idea it was the early symptoms of testicular cancer: “I thought nothing of it at first, because I was an assistant manager of a big members-only nightclub on Regent Street in London, and my job involved a lot of heavy lifting. I just took some painkillers and the pain went away for about two weeks.
“Then it came back. But this time it was much worse and it wasn’t just in the lower back – it was in the upper back as well. So I went to my local walk-in health centre to see if they could help.”
To begin with, the doctors were convinced that there was nothing wrong with Thomas, despite taking a chest X-ray and blood samples. Luckily Thomas’ mother was a retired GP and she was sure his symptoms were more serious. She took Thomas to see two more doctors, the second of which agreed he should see a specialist in two months’ time. Again, armed with her medical knowledge, Thomas’ mother insisted he was seen straight away. And her concerns were justified.
“The next day we saw the specialist, I had another chest X-ray and a blood sample was taken. Both results came back very abnormal and the specialist admitted me to hospital on the same day.
“On Monday, 15 November, 2004, I was told I had testicular cancer stage 4. This means cancer cells had spread from the original place to other parts of the body. It had spread to lots of lymph glands and to my liver and my lungs, and my parents were told that I would die.
“Looking back now, I feel I was let down to begin with because doctors were slow to react to my symptoms and to push for a second opinion. At first, the appointment for the second opinion was in three months’ time. But I simply would not have lasted that long.
“There is no way I could have known about the cancer earlier as there was no lump in my testicle, so I wouldn’t have been able to feel it. The primary growth there was so tiny that even when scans showed it up, the doctors themselves still couldn’t feel it.
“Being diagnosed was a terrible shock, but if I remember rightly my main reaction was ‘OK, just get me back to work ASAP.’ Right from the start of my treatment I had great faith in the doctors and staff at Charing Cross and Hammersmith Hospitals, where my treatment took place. I was under the care of Professor Seckl and Dr Carlo Palmieri and they were completely honest and open with me about the side-effects of my treatment. They were extremely generous with their time.
“That day I was transferred to Charing Cross Hospital in London and put on a three-and-a-half week course of chemotherapy. The doctors there later said they thought I’d have a 60 per cent chance of survival.
“Being on chemo is not as bad as it looks. You don’t really feel it going into you at the time. The worst part starts after a few chemo sessions, when you’re not able to be active. I felt so weak and tired all the time. However, I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, so I just accepted it.
“I honestly never thought for one second I was going to die. I think I surprised everyone with how positive I was throughout the year of my treatment. It helped me to cope with it all, and it helped my family too.”
Thomas had to have a second course of chemotherapy. This time it was seven three-day courses of chemo intravenously, spread over five months. As well as being admitted to hospital for some of these, he also had two emergency admissions when he picked up a couple of infections. He also had to have a stem cell transplant.
“This was possibly the worst three-and-a-half weeks of my life, mainly because I couldn’t eat for the majority of the time,” he says. “I even had to be given Valium because I was feeling so depressed and anxious.
“For nearly two weeks I was unable to eat or drink anything at all because my mouth was completely full of ulcers. All I wanted was comfort food, but this was not possible because it was too painful to eat. It was even painful to talk during this time (I think this made my parents quite happy though!). I suppose I got through it by trying to stay positive and telling myself again that it wouldn’t last forever.
“I felt so ill for part of the time – I had a lot of nosebleeds and for one week I had to be fed through a tube because my mouth was full of ulcers – a side-effect of the transplant. Three months later I was back in Charing Cross Hospital for a major operation to remove all the glands from the back of my abdomen and one testis. The glands showed dead cancer and the doctors said they would continue monitoring me to make sure the shadows in my lungs and liver disappeared, to make sure they were dead too.”
By the end of his course of treatment, Thomas was off the morphine, but had lost his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. “The day I was told that the tumour was dead was amazing. I knew then that I could get on with my life again. I could get back to work after a whole year off. But best of all was that I could start getting really it and active again.”
It’s now been more than six years since Thomas was diagnosed. “After my cancer treatment I got a new lease of life. I’d been interested in triathlon since I was about 17 and had belonged to Thames Turbo, where I’d met pros Stuart Hayes and Tim Don.”
Going back to his hectic career and tri training means Thomas is more active than ever. He now works as a head bartender in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair.
“It’s shift work, so sometimes I start as early as 10am and sometimes I finish as late as 2am. I get some strange looks when I’m running home at 3am, but I have to it my training in somehow! I get different days off each week, so it is a very irregular existence – not ideal maybe for sport, but on the other hand I’m on my feet all the time, so maybe that helps me keep fitter than if I was sitting at a desk all day.”
SPREADING THE WORD
But his day job isn’t the only thing keeping him up all hours; Thomas is ploughing his newfound energy into helping others through tri. “After my illness I decided that I didn’t want what had happened to me to happen to other people. I wanted to use my love of sport to help raise awareness of testicular cancer, so I set up my own website www.bustinyourballs.org.”
He’s now racing a series of triathlons to get some media coverage for the website. “I approached a number of people for help on web design and my cousin Jon, who has media experience, was more than happy to help me make my ideas a reality. He’s done a great job.
“The idea behind the site is to make testicular cancer a less confusing subject, by providing information about symptoms and about self examination. I’ve tried to make it clear that, as well as looking for a lump in the testicle, there are other symptoms that are very important too.”
Thomas has dozens of races on his list for 2011, but one more goal is a bit further off: “I’d love to represent Great Britain in triathlon,” he says. And with that Armstrong spirit, maybe he will.