Peter Dornan never expected to get cancer. At 52, he thought his life was going perfectly – he had his dream career, a wonderful family and was extremely well and healthy.
A physiotherapist by trade, Peter has always been alert to the importance of good health. He says a diagnosis of prostate cancer left him in complete shock.
‘I thought I was doing everything right. Despite being a health professional myself, I didn’t really know what my prostate was, what it did or why it was important. I think that’s a big failing of our awareness,’ Peter said.
Peter was told that if he didn’t receive treatment, he would only have 3 to 5 years left to live. He launched immediately into the treatment his oncologist recommended, the surgical removal of his prostate, without realising the impact it would have on his life.
‘All you hear when you get a cancer diagnosis is that it may kill you. I wanted to be here, no matter what the side effects of treatment were. Because I thought of myself as absolutely invincible at the time, I believed I would get over the side effects and it wouldn’t be a problem. I was wrong," Peter said.
‘The side effects of incontinence, impotence and depression hit me hard. There was no way out of it at the time. The doctors were there to save my life and that’s what they did, but there were no programs in place to help me cope with everything that came along with treatment. I had to find my own way.’
Peter first turned his attention to treating his incontinence, which was having the biggest impact on his daily life.
‘With prostate cancer, you lose your identity very quickly. I couldn’t work, walk or exercise after my surgery. It was like my life had stopped; I was barely surviving. I spoke with my physiotherapy colleagues who treated women with incontinence through pelvic floor exercises.’
‘They taught me how to do the same exercises, which helped me a great deal over a period of 6 months. This meant I could work, but it wasn’t enough to make me happy. Every time I had a leak, it would bring back the same trauma and stress and I would get depressed.’
From this dark place of his life, Peter found support in speaking with fellow men with prostate cancer and their families – but they weren’t easy to find.
‘When I was diagnosed, there were no men putting their hands up to talk about prostate cancer. The pathway was very murky. I thought that there must be other men experiencing what I'm going through, I can’t be alone. I put an ad in the paper asking if there were any other men going through this and whether they would come and meet with me.’
‘During that first meeting, we had 70 men and their partners turn up. Many of them were in denial and didn’t know how to talk about what they were going through. No one wants to be seen as weak or like something is wrong with you. After this, we began meeting monthly and together formed the Brisbane Prostate Cancer Support Group.’
He says the group, which he was convenor of for 20 years, had 3 main goals:
- To help men manage and work their way through the side effects of prostate cancer treatment.
- To raise awareness in the general community and among doctors to increase support for men who are struggling with the impact of prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment – especially common psychosocial effects such as depression and suicide.
- To improve investment in prostate cancer research in Australia.
Peter's Brisbane Prostate Cancer Support Group went on to join forces with other prostate cancer support groups across Australia and form the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, now the peak consumer body for prostate cancer in Australia.
Four years after his diagnosis, Peter also had the opportunity to go to America to explore the management of prostate cancer-related incontinence. From this experience, he wrote and published the book Conquering Incontinence.
‘I went to 6 of the biggest hospitals in the US who were treating prostate cancer and eventually worked out that the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles are all part of the same system. When I came back, I put this into practice and spent a great deal of time trying to get myself superbly fit.’
‘My incontinence dried up, my depression went, and my head became clearer. This allowed me, with great elation, to experience the joy of being alive compared to the tragedy of the diagnosis. To climb Mt Kilimanjaro, which I did at 60 years old, was a triumph for me personally and proof that my incontinence program worked.’
In the more than 20 years since his diagnosis with prostate cancer, Peter has continued to conquer new heights. Now 80 years of age, he has climbed Mt Aconcagua, Mt Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) and the Italian Alps, received the Commemorative 2000 Australian Sports Medal for his contribution to sport physiotherapy, and was appointed as a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2002.
In 2020, Peter became the Queensland Senior Australian of the Year for his inspiring contribution to men’s health. Reflecting on this incredible honour and all he has achieved, he is most proud of his impact on prostate cancer management in Australia.
‘The fact that I’m still surviving and have been able to influence a lot of people and make these changes is amazing. When I was diagnosed, 65% of men survived prostate cancer. Now 95% of men survive. We’ve made changes throughout the diagnosis, treatment and management of prostate cancer. I like to think I’m part of that journey.’
For Peter, the challenge of climbing mountains has compelled him to reflect on the meaning of resilience and how he can continue to live his life to the fullest – no matter the obstacles he faces.
‘When you’re climbing a mountain, you’re not just trying to get to the summit. It’s actually a personal climb within yourself. As you climb and reach greater heights, you find who you really are – not who you’ve been told you are. You're really climbing towards yourself.’
‘There's a saying that on the outside of every nasty life event, you have to look for the silver lining. Every time you’re under stress, you find out who you are. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or a big problem at work, you can work through it. Just keep saying ‘yes you can’.’
Peter urges everyone in Australia to put their health and happiness first, and to look forward to everything that ageing has to offer.
‘As you age, it’s important to get enough rest and sleep, to take breaks in a day and meditate, to exercise (more as you get older, not less!) and to follow a healthy, balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet. And enjoy a glass of red wine every now and then! That’s the best way to live as long as you can.’
‘My favourite thing at 80 years old is that I’m alive to enjoy every day! I love my work, my wife, kids and grandkids, my hobbies and my artistic pursuits that fulfil me. I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years bring.’
Peter is one of many older people in Australia achieving incredible things as they age. He is sharing his story with us as part of our sponsorship of the Senior Australian of the Year category of the Australian of the Year Awards.
For more inspiring stories, hear from past and present Senior Australian of the Year winners.
We are committed to ensuring every Australian has the opportunity to live well, stay healthy and maintain their connection to community as they age. To learn more about how we are supporting Australians to age well, visit our Positive ageing page.