I’m like most men; I went years without going to any sort of doctor
In the United States, a study by the CDC found that men were 80% less likely than women to have a regular health care source. Another study of men 18 – 25, showed that half don’t even have a regular source of health care and a full third of them hadn’t had a check-up in over a year. That was me. In about 2004, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. That was my last doctor visit until 2018.
I guess I felt bulletproof. No one in my family could tell you the last time I was sick, had the flu, or even a simple cold. My complacency about my own health led to obesity. At 6’ 1” I hovered around 285 pounds for about 20 years. Then I hit the wall. In mid-April of 2018, I awoke with terrible pain in my left knee. I thought I might have slept in some sort of awkward position. When I got out of bed, it buckled under me. Like a man, I figured that it would work itself out. It didn’t. In a few days, I needed a cane to get around and made an appointment to see an orthopedist.
I was diagnosed with severe arthritis and the only course of treatment offered was a series of three expensive injections which were not covered by my insurance.
So, I took a week off from work and laid on the couch swallowing anti-inflammatory meds, icing my howling knee and watching documentaries about nutrition and health. I learned that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is built on lies and I discovered a way of eating that I knew would be sustainable, that would become a lifestyle.
Fast forward seven months to find me 70 pounds lighter, pain free and working out on a regular basis at my local gym. It was just after Christmas and I was looking and feeling much better. With a little time off for the holiday, I decided to find a primary care physician and get a full physical. I wanted to confirm that, with all my lifestyle changes, my health was as good as I believed it to be.
My blood pressure was a little high but all the other tests came back as perfect. All except one. My PSA blood test result was 8.5. Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) is a substance released by the prostate and detectable in a man’s blood. A score of 4 or less is considered normal. I was urged to see a urologist and did the next week. My follow up PSA was 7 and a biopsy was scheduled.
On January 30th, 2019, I received “the call” from my urologist.
My Gleason score was 6. I had prostate cancer. I was 59 years old. I would be giving our eldest daughter away to one of the finest young men I’ve ever known in just two weeks. It was an exciting time and I was getting healthier by the day, but now this?!
I did my research and weighed my options. Brachytherapy involves implanting radioactive “seeds” directly into the tumor. Personally, I didn’t like the idea of walking around with a tiny Chernobyl in my abdomen. Lots of men do it but, for me, it was not something I wanted. Hormone therapy combined with targeted radiation was another option. Side effects of the hormone therapy mimic menopause symptoms in women. Side effects of radiation therapy include urinary and bowel function issues. With my relatively low PSA and the biopsy showing the cancer was fairly limited, I was also given the option of active surveillance. In other words, monitoring my PSA and undergoing future biopsies. No, thank you. I chose the fourth option, radical robotic prostatectomy. Even though I knew the foremost side effect would be erectile dysfunction for a time, I told my surgeon,
Take the little alien bastard out and incinerate him.
Surgery was scheduled for two months later and every day I contemplated my own mortality. We all know “that day” is coming and we all try to ignore the fact, but there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to bring a wake up slap to your face. I told my whole family what was happening and, at my daughter’s wedding, I danced like there was no tomorrow. Surgery was uneventful. When the nurse asked me how I would rate my pain on a scale of 1 – 10 I said, “Maybe a 2.” I simply felt like I had done too many sit ups. That’s all. Even being catheterized for about 10 days wasn’t a big deal. I spent six weeks on short term disability before returning to work.
During my recovery, I grappled with my new reality.
I couldn’t shake the odd feeling of somehow being marked
by cancer. I had learned through my research just how prevalent prostate cancer is; nearly as prevalent as breast cancer. Although unlike breast cancer, no one talks about it and, because no one talks about, men don’t understand their risk. Also, because men are unlikely to have regular health care and screenings, prostate cancer can easily go undetected until symptoms of metastasis occur. Early stage prostate cancer has no symptoms. I certainly didn’t. Treated early, the 5 year survival is nearly 100%. (I wondered why they talk about 5 year survival until I found out the average age of diagnosis is 66. At 59, I guess you can say I was an early adopter.) However, after metastasis, usually to the bones, the prognosis is not nearly as bright.
So, there I was, with this nagging feeling of being marked and a head full of knowledge. I decided to own
my prostate cancer. I believe that a man can have only one of two reactions. Either he’ll withdraw and say,
Move along. Nothing to see here.
Or, he’ll get open and vocal about it. I chose the latter and I went to the tattoo parlor to have the blue ribbon of awareness tattooed on my right hand because, as I told the artist, I want every handshake to be an opportunity. Since then I have had many conversations with men about their risk, the need to be screened and the importance of early detection. I also speak with women quite often so they can educate the men they love and urge them to get screened.
About three days after my tattoo, I was in a store.
When I handed the money to the young woman behind the counter, she noticed my tattoo, said she liked it and asked what it meant. I told her it was the blue ribbon of prostate cancer awareness. It wasn’t busy so we stood and talked about my experience; that I never went to a doctor and that I only went after making significant lifestyle changes and then just to confirm my health. She asked when men should start getting checked. I told her that men of African or Caribbean decent are at a higher risk and at an earlier age and that veterans and men with a direct family member who has had prostate cancer are also at high risk. These men should be screened in their forties. I said that every other man should be screened beginning in his fifties. Her eyes got a little larger. She said, “My dad’s 56 and he never goes to the doctor!” She picked up her phone from the counter and said, “I’m going to text him right now.” I told her that was a good idea and wished her well.
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On January 30th 2019, Mike received “the call” from his urologist. He had prostate cancer. He was 59 years old. Mike is now a Prostate cancer survivor raising awareness daily. Mentor to the newly diagnosed.