New Zealand football great Steve Sumner’s cancer has spread and he faces chemotherapy next week, but he is still urging men to be constantly vigilant of the prostate cancer risk.
Sumner, who captained the All Whites at the 1982 World Cup finals, received a standing ovation when he spoke of his positive approach to his own health battles at the Prostate Cancer Foundation of New Zealand conference in Christchurch last weekend.
The 61-year-old was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer last September and given a 30 per cent chance of survival.
He adopted a healthy diet from the outset and had 39 radiation treatments earlier this year.
By Christmas, his PSA reading was 0.2 – down from 6.7 when initially tested in July 2015 and 9.7 in September after two more digital rectal examinations (DRE).
After Christmas, his PSA had dropped to 0.1 – considered “undetectable” – and a doctor told him he had good chance of beating cancer.
But Sumner said, in the last few weeks, his cancer had spread to his spine, ribs, sternum and lymph nodes and he had more than 20 tumours in his liver.
He told Stuff he was “going to keep fighting as the alternative ain’t flash” and he had promised his family he would fight.
He meets a specialist on Monday to discuss a chemotherapy programme.
“I want people to know that I’m in good spirits, and I’ve got great support all around me.
“But I really want to get the message out there to other blokes to keep getting tested.”
Sumner said “less than a week before” he was told he had liver cancer, he had blood tests which showed his liver and kidney functions were normal and his PSA reading was 0.1, which “is regarded as undetectable”.
“And in a short space of time I am told I now have liver cancer.”
Sumner said he had had “a few phantom pains”, but otherwise felt quite well earlier in the year.
“About six to eight weeks ago, I was sitting on a bike at the gym, thinking ‘now what am I going to do?’.”
He decided to start training for the half marathon at the Queenstown marathon in November, though was later convinced by daughter Tori to “do the 10k run, which would be more of a walk”.
Sumner was still struggling to bend his knee after a knee replacement last year, so he visited his orthopedic surgeon at Burwood Hospital, who “put me out and manipulated my leg in places you can’t when you’re awake”.
On discharge next day, he felt “an unbelievable sharp pain”behind his right shoulder. “It felt like a red hot poker had been stuck through my shoulder.
“I had to put my bags down because I couldn’t carry them.”
Sumner “felt like crap” the following day and was “flat out on the couch”.
He felt progressively better as the week progressed but by Sunday “could feel a little spot in the middle of my back, about the size of a 10 cent coin, and it was quite hot”.
“Next morning, that little 10 cent coin felt like the size of a grapefruit… it was very hot and was throbbing, and the pain felt like five out of five.”
Sumner consulted his doctor and had blood tests and an electrocardiograph (ECG) and was then sent to a clinic for an X-ray,
The results were were delivered to his doctor, who sent Sumner to the Christchurch Hospital acute medical assessment unit (AMAU) for more tests.
“When I arrived, they said, ‘your bed’s over there’, which was a bit of a shock, because I hadn’t brought anything in, and wasn’t expecting to stay.”
Sumner had a chest X-ray, more blood tests and another ECG and was sent for a CT scan.
Next day, he was visited by a specialist who said: “How long have you had this pain?”
“Then he said, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. You’ve got cancer in your spine and ribs.
“I said, ‘Really,” Sumner said. “You could have knocked me down with a feather.”
The doctor ordered another CT scan of Sumner’s abdomen. He returned the following day and Sumner told him he was not in much pain but felt “a bit wheezy”.
“He said, ‘I’ve got more bad news for you… you’ve got cancer in your liver and your lymph nodes.”
“You could have knocked me down with a feather again, but I said: ‘how?’
Sumner said despite his negligible PSA reading and the confidence of a doctor who told him he was going to beat the disease, the cancer “had escaped the prostate capsule” and spread throughout his body.
He visited hospital “three days in a row” the following week when “the pain level was ridiculous” and had further scans to his head and neck.
Results revealed “something at the base” of his skull and neck. He was later told it had also reached his sternum.
Sumner was still determined to honour a promise on Friday July 15 to be a special guest at the Christchurch Football Academy’s international tournament.
He “felt really crap in the morning” but drove to the Yaldhurst venue.
“The first person I saw was Slava [academy founder Slava Meyn]. He said, ‘how are you Steve?’ I said: “Terrible. I couldn’t even say ‘hello Slava’.”
Sumner sat pitchside for the formalities and the opening game, and found “the whole thing was uplifting”.
Back home that evening after radiation on his back and ribs, he told wife Jude “to go out with the girls, you deserve a break”.
“I went to bed and was that ill I couldn’t take my cap, scarf and jacket off. I jumped into bed with all my clothes on, and I was still shivering like crazy and sweating profusely when I woke at 1am.”
Jude Sumner has also had her own brush with breast cancer. The day after her husband finished his 39th and final radiation treatment, she started the first of 16 radiation sessions.
“We’ve had 55 between us,” Steve quipped. “I reckon it’s a world record, certainly down our road.
“But Jude has been told she shouldn’t get it again.”
Sumner hasn’t been so lucky, but he is still clinging on to “the Spirit of September”, the positive energy he derived from the support of his family after his initial diagnosis last year.
“My son [Carl] said, ‘Beckett [his son] needs a granddad’. My daughter [Tori] said, ‘I want you to walk me up the aisle’, and Jude told me: ‘I thought we were going to grow old together’.”
His family, including Sydney-based sons Paul (and his wife Tarryn) and Deano (and partner Nadia) gathered in Christchurch again last week.
They joined Sumner at the Prostate Foundation conference where the organisers “told my kids that in six years no-one has ever got a standing ovation before.”
Sumner is also buoyed by the support he has received from friends and the football community, not least his former All Whites coach John Adshead and his Christchurch-based ex-international team-mate and old friend Bobby Almond.
“I get great messages every day with people saying, ‘if anyone can beat this, you can, even though you feel like you’re fighting the invisible man’.”
“I would rather have that than people saying ‘I’m sorry or I’m sad’, but I know people care in their own way.”
Sumner is also looking forward to a visit from members of his family from England, including his 86-year-old mother, Norma, his brother Dean and sister Diane, who has never been to New Zealand since he arrived here in 1973.
He is getting a lot of joy from his grandchildren, Beckett and Stella, who live in Christchurch with Sumner’s son, Carl, and his partner, Hannah.
Sumner now wants to use his energy pass on his experience to help others.
Just as he helped shape a new generation of All Whites as an assistant-coach after his own playing days ended, Sumner wants to get the message out to other “middle aged blokes to get tested”.
“I’ve heard people say they will never have a DRE [digital rectal examination]. They’ve said they’d rather get cancer than have someone poke a finger up their bum.
“That’s crazy, it’s not being tough, they’re being soft.”
Sumner said he’s “not a doctor” but he believes men in the at-risk age group should be tested by a urologist once a year.
He said men with PSA readings in the higher end of the 0-4 range, which was generally considered safe, should still get DRE tests.
Men with confirmed prostate cancer should also seek regular MRI and CT scans where practical to make sure the disease was not spreading.
Sumner still believes in thinking positively.
“I tell myself every single night when I’ve got a bit of pain that ‘it’s going to feel a bit better tomorrow’, and invariably it is.”
Story by Tony Smith on Stuff.co.nz