Peter Montgomery: ‘Living in denial meant not living much longer'

by Peter Montgomery / 30 June, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - men's health

PJ in his element, on the water. Photo/Montgomery family collection

The voice of yachting, Peter “PJ” Montgomery, is not usually lost for words, but when the doctor told him he had prostate cancer, he was struck dumb – and, he recalls, he seemed to go deaf at the same time.

I’d had various issues with my waterworks and bladder in 2006, so I went to my GP, John Mayhew. I was at an age in my mid-forties when I needed to start being checked.

But checking out the bladder issues involves a bit more than what a GP would usually do, so John sent me to urologist Michael Mackey.

My PSA blood test was good but not that good. A finger up the butt was really the answer. So I said to Michael, “Well, if you insist.” He did. He took some time over feeling my prostate and then requested I get a biopsy done. He explained one side of my prostate was hard, so he wanted to check further.

I was booked for a transrectal ultrasound-guided prostate biopsy for June 12, 2006. Michael told me he had found something quite crustaceous and that was when he decided to get the biopsy done.

The biopsy confirmed what he felt. On June 19, I went back to see Michael. He said it looked serious and he had some bad news. The biopsy of the right lobe of the prostate was positive. He was trying to tell me I had cancer. He said if I was 10 or certainly 15 years older, he’d do nothing.

What I seized on was there were some guys who live into their eighties with it. That every man by the time he’s in his eighties probably has prostate cancer, but it hasn’t developed enough that it becomes what he dies of.

So did I just hear white noise once Michael had said “cancer” and “positive”? I think I did. I was shocked. He told me what I had, but I think it was “whoomph”. The shock of it meant the message didn’t register. It just went over me. I didn’t digest it. I went into denial.

I just wasn’t being realistic and was really living a lie. At home, with my dear wife, Claudia, I downplayed the news. The only person I told I had cancer was my physiotherapist, David Abercrombie, and he told me in very frank, blunt terms that I should do something about it. Every week, David told me that I was being stupid and staying in denial would not solve anything.

He did sideline commentary at All Blacks matches for 25 years. Photo/Photosport

But I found excuses to not do anything. Michael Mackey, the urologist, was going to France to ride in the L’Étape du Tour, a stage that amateurs can ride during the Tour de France.

I do remember thinking, “Well, Michael’s going away, so that takes the heat off.” I knew he was away for four to six weeks. So I went home and did nothing.

I would have thought about it several times a day. Not once a day. To the point where I was thinking, “Have I really got it? How bad is it?”

I do recall the torture I was going through. Am I living a lie or do I have time on my side? Then the cloud lifted. In mid-August, two months after my diagnosis, Michael’s wonderful practice nurse, Janine Pinfold, phoned and left a message on our home phone. She said they were worried they had not heard from me and time was becoming important.

The message was picked up by Claudia. For the first time, she realised the situation was not as sunny as my actions, or lack of them, suggested.

In mid-August, I went back to Doc Mayhew and told him about my visits to Michael Mackey and my stupid reaction and how I was in denial. Doc Mayhew was fantastic and gave me some excellent questions to ask Michael. When I left, I was in no doubt I had to get real and that living in denial meant I would not be living much longer.

On September 1, Claudia came with me to an appointment with Michael. My first question was: “Michael, have I really got cancer?” He looked at me, and I’ve never forgotten it, as if to say, “Am I looking at a dimwit here?” He said, “I’ve told you that.” That was the problem. I wouldn’t accept it.

I asked another couple of questions. Then Claudia took over, conducted the orchestra and did the talking. I just sat there. The appointments were made.

An operation would happen within the next fortnight. This was serious and now needed urgent attention.

When we left, I can remember the relief of knowing something was happening. My own conscience was relieved that action was finally being taken. I did get the message in the end. Fortunately, the cancer was confined to my prostate. The big issue was that if I messed around for too long, it could spread into my lymph nodes and then I’d be in real trouble. While I still had a lot of apprehension, once it was out in the open there was a weight off my shoulders.

Claudia and I were to have been going to Edinburgh in September. We cancelled everything. On September 13, 2006, less than a fortnight after the crucial meeting with Michael, I was being operated on.

Once the cloud lifted, I had a very supportive wife and family and the burden was shared. Claudia was fantastic. I went to Ascot Hospital for the operation and she was there in all my waking time.

We already had a fantastic relationship, but I think our marriage was strengthened. I learned the hard way that you need to share. Ten years later, there is no recurrence of the disease.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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