Seven-time surfing world champion and motivational speaker Layne Beachley shares how her relationship with INXS saxophonist-guitarist-singer Kirk Pengilly has evolved since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
It was the night before a 10-day food and wine holiday to New Zealand in February 2015 when INXS star Kirk Pengilly learned of his cancer. The news came via an email from his urologist informing the 58-year-old that he had very aggressive prostate cancer.
“The email ended with ‘Have a great holiday. See you in two weeks’,” Pengilly’s wife and surfing legend, author and motivational speaker, Layne Beachley, tells The Manual.
Shaken by the news, and also shocked by the lack of empathy and professionalism by the Sydney specialist (who was let go soon after), Pengilly kept the news to himself until the moment he and his wife were about to board the plane for their holiday. Beachley recounts how her mind went numb from the news.
“It was a deeply distressing time. There were so many variables, so many unknowns and so many unanswered questions. We were both in denial for the first few days.
“The news finally settled in me when I burst into tears one day while we were on the road in New Zealand. And that’s when I truly realised how scared and helpless I was,” she adds.
Being a member of INXS – a band that has sold more than 35 million records worldwide and collected countless awards, including three Grammy nominations – Pengilly had been living the rockstar life. Beachley, on the other hand, was focused on her sport and conquering every wave. They were traversing very different worlds, which collided in 2002 when a mutual friend (Jon Stevens from the band Noiseworks) decided to set them up. Beachley, who has seven world titles under her belt and retired from the World Surf League in 2008, recounts the first night she met Pengilly. “It was horrendous,” she says.
“The evening started out badly. I was looking for an excuse or even an open window in the bathroom to escape. There was zero chemistry between us.”
It wasn’t until the owner of the restaurant joined them with a bottle of Limoncello that the couple started to get comfortable in each other’s company.
Eight years later, at 10am on 10 October 2010 (“It was all a coincidence!”) the couple, who have been on television shows such as Celebrity MasterChef and Dancing with the Stars, tied the knot. They made their toast with Limoncello, no less.
“Kirk and I are absolute opposites. He’s chalk, and I’m cheese. The two of us live in such different worlds and have different lives, yet we complement each other in all facets. We have similar beliefs – including being disciplined about our health and fitness,” adds Beachley.
Pengilly, who currently is involved in various charities and spends his time managing his and Beachley’s investment properties, had become increasingly vigilant and had been monitoring his prostate specific antigens (PSA) levels more carefully after an annual blood test in 2012 revealed a slightly elevated result. He started having three-monthly blood tests. By Christmas 2014, his PSAs had increased sharply.
After that result, Pengilly was advised to have an MRI, and it showed a small black spot on the high side of the prostate. It was his second MRI and, because the spot was on the high side of the prostate, a previous biopsy may have missed it. The cancer proved to be very aggressive.
Slowly coming to terms with the news of the cancer while on their holiday in New Zealand, Pengilly took control of the reins and maintained his pragmatic and positive outlook. His initial step was to enjoy every minute of the holiday that remained, as though it was his last hurrah.
“We visited every winery from Wellington to Auckland with our friends, and had every bottle of rosé during each meal that also involved hot chips with sauce, and the works,” adds Beachley with a laugh.
Between the wine tours and boozy meals, the couple did extensive research online regarding prostate cancer and the prostatectomy that Pengilly would undergo. Despite relying solely on medical journals and the experiences of other cancer survivors (“We did not base our research on WebMD,” Beachley says), the couple found conflicting advice and experiences. They came to understand there is no one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to treatment and post-treatment care. They noted down all the questions they had and, as soon as they returned to Sydney, they met with Professor Phillip Stricker AO, a robotic surgeon with whom Pengilly had been previously acquainted. Stricker had repaired Pengilly’s severed urethra in the 1990s – the result of a fall on a yacht winch.
Upon consultation, Stricker confirmed that Pengilly’s PSA reading was of high concern and that he had a nine out of possible 10 on the Gleason Score cancer grading scale. “A normal PSA result is between one and four,” says Beachley. “Kirk’s was at 11. Over a short period, his readings doubled.”
Stricker recommended the less invasive robotic prostatectomy surgery option of having Pengilly’s prostate removed through a group of small incisions in his abdomen. The surgery was marked in for 18 March and Beachley was advised that it would take a couple of hours.
It proved to be more complicated than expected, however, due to Pengilly’s previous injury in his urethra. Fortunately, the surgery was a success and, in April the same year, Pengilly was given the all-clear. By May, his follow-up blood test showed a 0.01 PSA reading, indicating that chemotherapy was not required.
Despite the all-clear, the road to recovery was a long one. Pengilly had regular visits to the physiotherapist for rehabilitation and had to have a catheter for his bladder for two to three weeks after the surgery. His erectile function is still not at a 100 percent, Beachley says. Pengilly continues to use injections and is diligent with pelvic floor exercises.
“Things aren’t totally back to normal, and we acknowledge that. We don’t put our heads in the sand and use the term that I detest, which is, ‘It’s all good’ because it’s not.
“What we had before is not what we have now. We accept that things have changed and make the most of them,” adds Beachley. “The biggest mistake most people make is to stay in their comfort zones. They want to pretend that everything’s OK. That doesn’t allow for anything to grow, change and heal,” she adds.
Beachley says that the experience has made them more compassionate to one another and that they have become more intimate over the years of post-treatment.
“We’re a very affectionate couple. We always want to touch each other, be near each other and hold each other. And what this challenge has done for our relationship is it has actually brought us closer together.”
Beachley echoes a similar sentiment that has been repeated by many relationship and sex counsellors: the key to intimacy is open communication.
“Kirk and I have grown more loving of each other and more grateful for the time that we have with each other. You don’t know when something like cancer can pop up and take somebody away from you. If something were to happen to Kirk tomorrow, he knows exactly how much I love him because I tell him every day. And he does the same.”
Seeing the positives in the challenges they have faced has made this couple an example for many. As Beachley recounts their experience together, she says there was something that still gnawed at her – how they were informed about the cancer in a very blasé manner. That communication lacked empathy, says Beachley.
“Doctors and specialists can become too prescriptive and forget about empathising with their patients, and giving them the attention and guidance they deserve. Healthcare practitioners are dealing with the same thing day in and out, and sometimes they burn out and lose their sense of compassion, which makes the journey for the patients even harder,” she says.
Beachley suggests that general practitioners and doctors, who spend all day attending to the problems and challenges of others, must also take time out for themselves.
“I do speak with a lot of healthcare practitioners at my workshops, and I find that they can also become pretty resentful because they don’t ever give anything back to themselves. That happens to me, too.
“If I give and give to everybody else, I feel depleted and exhausted. And I’m severely reducing my ability to give to others positively.”
And to couples who are going through what she and Pengilly have experienced, Beachley has one thing to say: prostate cancer is not a death sentence if you address it quickly, seek treatment and be open to the changes that will affect the relationship between the couple.
“And when it comes to intimacy and sex, be patient. I’ve never put pressure on Kirk. I was willing to wait, and encourage him to do things differently,” Beachley says. “Be supportive of the fact that you’re experiencing things that you’ve never done before, so there’s a lot of unknowns. Little ripples of change can collectively turn the tide on all of life’s challenges.”