The support group sports physiotherapist Peter Dornan founded 17 years ago to help himself survive prostate cancer helped lay foundations for a network which ensures thousands of others don't make the journey alone.
Prostate cancer is the second largest cause of male cancer deaths in Australia. Around 19,000 men are diagnosed each year and more than 3000 die.
Diagnosed at 52, Dornan underwent life saving surgery which left him battling side effects – incontinence, erectile dysfunction and depression – which weren't addressed by the medical profession.
While women with breast cancer were buttressed by education, counseling and support programs, there was no equivalent service for men.
“There was nowhere to go and no one to talk to,” Dornan says.
Matters were not helped by men's hard-wired reluctance to ask for help or discuss challenges that strike at the heart of masculinity.
“It wasn't that the doctors weren't caring…men didn't speak up and say, 'look, I'm in trouble here pal', they took it on their shoulders,” Dornan says.
“The three 'Ws', war, work and women – that's how men identify themselves, that's how historically we've found our role. Men want to appear to be completely in charge.”
After the Cancer Council referred him to a bowel cancer support group, Dornan decided to seek out some fellow sufferers himself.
“I thought, there's got to be some other men out there who are going through what I'm going through so I put an ad in the paper and about 70 men and their partners turned up on the same night,” Dornan says.
“All of them not knowing what to do.”
Thus began the first of a series of monthly meetings where men could share their challenges and learn from the health and medical practitioners drafted by Dornan as guest speakers.
“I did it to help myself in the beginning – I could see all these guys in the same boat and we were helping each other,” Dornan says.
One of a handful of men to become physiotherapists in the 1960s, Dornan spent his early career working with a slew of sporting teams, including the Queensland Reds, the Wallabies and the Kangaroos.
Preventative health professor Suzanne Chambers attended an early gathering in his rooms and recalls “men everywhere, hanging off exercise equipment and examination beds, supporting each other and getting help from Peter in particular”.
“A big contribution, aside from making a difference in the lives of individual men and their families, is Peter's openness about his own experience, really working to make it ok for men to open up and get help when they need it,” Chambers says.
It was to members of his own profession that Dornan turned for information on pelvic floor exercises to treat the continence problems he and other survivors experienced.
He subsequently developed pre and post-operative exercise programs to address these symptoms and wrote a rehab guide, Conquering Incontinence.
Within months of inception, Dornan's group had mustered 1000 members and was attracting enquiries from other states. He called on the Cancer Council to help him manage what his ad had begun.
Fast forward 16 years and the Brisbane Prostate Cancer Support Group is one of a nationwide network of 140 which operate under the auspices of the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia.
Newsletters, conferences, online resources and awareness campaigns have eliminated much mystery and fear from the diagnosis, while hospitals now employ specialist nurses to guide men through treatment and rehab.
Dornan says education and peer support have helped slash the incidence of serious depression among survivors. Back then, it affected around 50 per cent; now, just one in 10 develop the condition.
A Member of the Order of Australia and state finalist for Senior Australian of the Year in 2007, Dornan still practises full-time.
He marked his return to fighting form by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in 2003 and in 2009 tackled Mt Aconcagua in the Andes, coming within 1500 metres of the summit before being driven back by blizzards.