by Roger White
Musician/songwriter Dan Fogelberg. Actor Dennis Hopper. Musician Frank Zappa. Television producer Merv Griffin. Actor Telly Savalas. Psychologist/writer Timothy Leary. What do all these guys have in common? They all died of prostate cancer, a highly treatable disease if caught in the early stages. Why am I telling you this? I guess you could say it’s become a personal mission of mine to get the word out about early detection. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in November 2013.
It was a shocker, to say the least. It all started with a routine physical, grudgingly agreed to after the insistent urgings of my lovely wife, Sue. One of the many things the doc checks for in guys my age (50+) is the level of PSA in the bloodstream. PSA, short for prostate-specific antigen, is produced by the prostate gland, located down in the male nether regions. Its main function, to put it in terms appropriate for family-friendly reading, is to produce a substance that, um, allows one’s boys to swim more freely. An elevated PSA level is a red flag, however.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. PSA tests, as Sue and I found through voracious research, are somewhat controversial because some health advocates have cited an overdiagnosis and overtreatment for prostate cancer in otherwise healthy men. Only 30 percent of men with elevated PSA levels are found to have prostate cancer following biopsy, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. And the biopsy is no picnic, let me tell ya. Many men, I discovered, opt to skip the biopsy—a quite literal pain in the rear—and conduct what’s termed “watchful waiting” over the years, wherein they’re obliged to check their PSA level regularly to see if it’s rising.
Unfortunately, it seems this controversy about PSA test accuracy has been used as an excuse by many men to simply skip the whole screening. Well, I’m here to tell men over 50, despite the clamor about overtreatment, to get your PSA level checked. I was in the 30 percent. My biopsy report came back stamped in red, in all caps: “CARCINOMA.” Cancer. After the initial terror wore off, we went into action. And here is where it helps immensely to have a supportive partner. Sue read everything she could get her hands on about prostate cancer. We found that every case is different and that treatment options are varied—and confusing. We discovered that although prostate cancer is among the most common cancer in men, some men can actually live with the disease into very old age.
This, however, was not my case. The biopsy showed that mine was advanced to the stage that I required treatment. My options were surgery (removal of the prostate gland), external radiation (a series of treatments in which a beam targets cancerous tissue), or brachytherapy (inserting radioactive “seeds” directly into the body). Considering my relatively young age at diagnosis and at the recommendation of specialists, we chose surgery. Radiation, we found, is more viable for men in their 70s and beyond. My main fears regarding the procedure weren’t about being cut open; the possible side-effects were truly frightening: risk of urinary incontinence and loss of sexual function. With all this swirling in my head, we chose February 15, the day after Valentine’s Day, as the day to go under the knife.
I don’t remember much about my hospital stay, except that I was in much more pain than I had anticipated. And I was sent home with a “little buddy”—a catheter. With that cumbersome bag strapped to my leg for more than a week, I hobbled around the house looking somewhat like a nude gunfighter.
But the catheter’s off now. I have a nice scar running from just under my belly button to just above my crotch. I have a little pain, and I’m moving slow; however, I’m not wearing adult diapers and my ability to function as a man is coming back day by day. TMI, perhaps, but this is important stuff. I have some obstacles to overcome, but I have my life.
The upshot is this: Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among men in the United States—sixth in the entire world. According to the American Cancer Society, of all the leading new cancer cases and deaths estimated for 2014, prostate cancer accounts for 10 percent, second only to lung cancer.
Listen to the wife, men. Get a physical.
Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.