The day I stood up to cancer: PE teacher tells his story to help others beat testicular cancer
- Credit: IAN BURT
Talking openly about how you were struck down by testicular cancer is perhaps one of the most difficult things a man can do, even in the best of circumstances.
However one PE teacher bravely stood up in front of pupils at his school and told them the emotional story of how he battled the illness at the age of just 22.
Dan Ward – now 24 – joked to students at Springwood High School, in King's Lynn, that the lump he discovered in July 2011 was the itch that saved his life.
At the time, it seemed like there was very little to laugh about.
Having been on a high after finishing his sports science degree a few days before, Mr Ward was told that he had the debilitating condition, which affects about 2,000 men every year.
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'I saw the adverts about it but I never really thought I'd get it,' he said.
'I was so healthy and all of a sudden I got this lump. I went from being at the top of my game to being rock bottom.'
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Mr Ward underwent an operation to remove his testicle at Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge. He said he had it replaced with a prosthetic one mainly to preserve his male pride.
Fortunately, the cancer did not appear to have spread and a few months later Mr Ward – who was born and bred in King's Lynn – started training to be a teacher at Springwood, where he had been a pupil just a few years earlier.
But he was then told there was some potentially cancerous growth in blood vessels around the lump, which meant there was a 50% chance the illness would return.
Mr Ward said: 'I did not want to live with that risk.'
He chose a course of chemotherapy which lasted for about three weeks but which left him physically and emotionally drained. It took him a year to fully recover.
He lost his hair and was so tired he would sleep for up to 19 hours at a time on occasions – but incredibly still continued to work at Springwood as he did not want to fall behind with his training programme.
'I could manage to get through the day but, with teacher training, you have a lot of work on top of that,' he revealed.
'When I got home, I struggled and I would get behind with planning.
'That's where the school was brilliant in terms of managing my workload. My department were brilliant and were great in terms of picking me up.'
Mr Ward has gone on to make a full recovery, although he still has regular check-ups at Addenbrooke's every four months.
'It was lucky they caught it early,' he said. 'It hit me pretty hard. In the aftermath, I got quite depressed.
'The hair loss was the bit that really hit me. It was a shock to see your appearance changing.
'As someone who was quite young, I liked having my hair and all of a sudden it was gone. It was hard and it took a while to get over.
'However I rushed back to work because I didn't want it to look like I was postponing my life.'
He added: 'There is always a lingering doubt that it will come back.'
Since his recovery, Mr Ward – who also completed a teacher training placement at the King Edward VII School in King's Lynn – has felt it important to speak about his experience to students so they can fully understand the impact testicular cancer can have.
He admits that he was 'a little bit anxious' when asked to talk about his highly personal set of circumstances in front of group of teenagers.
He even had a comeback primed for boys who might snigger at their teacher losing a ball, which was to ask them the question: 'Losing your testicle or losing your life – which one would you choose? It was a very simple choice.'
Yet despite his apprehension, he did not need to fight back against any sneering or sniping as he gave a series of assemblies on the issue this month.
'They were all brilliant in terms of how they sat and listened,' said Mr Ward, who showed the students pictures of him while he was having chemotherapy. It came to them as a bit of a shock that someone so young could get it.'
Mr Ward's style is to 'try to make a bit of a joke with it' to attract students' attention but at the same time make the serious warning that: 'This could happen to you.'
He said that even if only two or three extra pupils started to make regular checks for lumps at home, he might help to reduce the chances of someone being struck down with the illness before it is too late.
'It sounds weird for a teacher to say go and play with your balls but the stark reality is you need to look after yourself,' he said. 'It is the only way you are going to find it.'
He admitted: 'I wouldn't have routinely checked myself' but that he is 'living proof' that people should.
Mr Ward, who has also taken part in Movember since his illness and is playing in a charity rugby match organised by his friend Simon Stephenson to raise money for the cause, added that his story is 'probably the best tool we've got' in the fight against testicular cancer.
'That's why I try and promote it,' he added.
The EDP is backing the annual Movember appeal. If you are supporting the cause contact Mark Shields on 01603 772426 or email email@example.com