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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

International Men’s Day: Ronnie’s journey with cancer and PTSD

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Mental health, MOD Guard Service, Wellbeing
Image of Ronnie Patterson with the quote "Having the support of my family, friends and colleagues aided my recovery. It also helps to talk about my journey."
Ronnie Patterson has shared his experiences with penile cancer and PTSD. (Crown copyright)

Ronnie Patterson is a trainer for the MOD Guard Service (MGS).

Before joining the DIO, Ronnie served in the Forces for 12 years, seeing action in the Gulf War and in Northern Ireland. He then had a successful career as a firefighter for over 20 years.

In 2021, he was diagnosed with penile cancer, which only affects around 400 men in the UK each year. He was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD due to the catastrophic effect of his cancer diagnosis.

Penile cancer is specific to men and although rare, can be deadly. It occurs when abnormal cells grow in an uncontrolled way; changes to the colour or texture of the penile skin can often be an indication of this cancer.

Now 16 months in remission, Ronnie wants to use his experience to raise awareness of penile cancer, as well as showing the importance of looking after both physical and mental health.

He is sharing his story today, on International Men’s Day, in the hope that more men can avoid experiencing what he has been through.

The diagnosis

It was 2016 when I noticed that something wasn’t right. A small area of red skin, that I first thought was just a rash, was actually the first sign that I had cancer. A friend of mine who worked in the funeral industry told me about somebody he had seen who had died from penile cancer. When I Googled it, the pictures looked very similar.

So, like most people would, I booked an appointment with my GP, but they told me it wasn’t cancer and I believed them. Now looking back, I realise I’m incredibly lucky that the cancer was slow growing, otherwise I could be long gone by now.

I carried on as normal until I retired from the fire service in 2020, when further changes to my skin began to develop. But by then we were in the middle of a global pandemic – GP surgeries were closed, and hospitals were filled with Covid-19 patients.

It wasn’t until December 2021, that I was finally diagnosed with penile cancer. By then, it had developed, meaning my treatment needed to be much more aggressive. What could have been treated with a chemotherapy cream five years before now needed a partial amputation and several skin grafts.

“Dad, you need help.”

I’d always thought I had dealt with my experiences in the Army and fire service well – mainly with dark humour and alcohol, as many others will attest to.

But everything I had compartmentalised over the years came bursting out when I received my diagnosis. It was then that my PTSD began to develop.

Throughout my cancer recovery, my family noted changes to my personality. I had become less tolerant; my emotions were all over the place; angry then sad, with no explanation. I had bouts of sleepless nights and would often wake in a cold sweat. I couldn’t function as I once had – both physically and mentally.

My family pleaded with me to speak to a therapist, but it was a long time until I realised I had a problem. It was actually my son who convinced me that I needed help.

It was around the time that Russia had invaded Ukraine and Liz Truss had appealed for any ex-Forces personnel to go over to Ukraine to help. I’m in a lot of Facebook groups with other veterans and they all cleared out, almost overnight. So many people were going over to help and play their part.

I was determined to go too. I started preparing when my son stopped me and just said “Dad, you need help.”

It was then that it hit me and made me realise that I did need professional help to get me through this thing I hadn’t even known I was struggling with.

Moving forward

Getting the right help wasn’t easy; local services had 14-week waiting lists just for a Zoom call, and a call over a computer isn’t going to cut it. For PTSD, you need to be in the same room as someone, seeing the whites of their eyes, with plenty of tissues on standby.

Putting a label on what was going on with my mental health was the start of my recovery. I learnt coping mechanisms and realised that there are people out there to help.

Having the support from my family, friends and colleagues aided my recovery, another thing that helped was taking about my journey.

I can be out and about and if I hear someone mention cancer, I’ll ask them if they want to hear my story. They might think I’m mad, but talking about it not only helps me, but also helps to get the existence of this cancer out there.

Unfortunately, most men have no idea of the existence of penile cancer and most, if not all men, don’t like to talk about these things.

But that is what I want to change. If we can talk about it and make sure more men know this is possible and can happen, then hopefully we can catch it before it’s too late.

I’d say all men could benefit from checking that area, but some people who could be particularly vulnerable include those that are overweight, heavy smokers, those with skin issues such as psoriasis, or who have suffered trauma to the area. It has also been linked the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

As with any cancer, if you have any concerns, go and get yourself checked out. It’s half an hour out of your day, but it could prevent it from taking thousands of days off your life.

Symptoms of penile cancer include:

  • · A growth or ulcer on the penis, especially on the head or foreskin,
  • · Colour changes,
  • · Skin thickening,
  • · Persistent discharge with a foul odour underneath the foreskin,
  • · Blood coming from the tip of the penis or under the foreskin,
  • · Unexplained pain in the shaft or tip of the penis,
  • · Irregular or growing bluish-brown flat lesions or marks, either beneath the foreskin or on the body of the penis,
  • · Reddish, velvety rash beneath the foreskin,
  • · Small crusty bumps beneath the foreskin,
  • · Irregular swelling at the end of the penis.

Anyone who want to find more information about cancer can contact Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support or Orchid Fighting Male Cancer – Penile Cancer, which is a charity for this specific cancer.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by fraser posted on

    i never knew that penile cancer existed so thank you for being brave enough to talk about it in an open forum and for highlighting it so that more people can be aware of the conditions to look out for in future, so once again thank y


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