Each year, more than 180,000 men in the United States are diagnosed with prostate cancer. While each man’s cancer journey is different, there’s value in knowing what other men have gone through.
Read what three different men did after learning about their diagnosis and what lessons they learned along the way.
Do your own research
Ron Lewen’s enthusiasm for the Internet and research paid off when he found out he had prostate cancer. “I’m such a geek, so I just researched the heck out of this,” he says.
Lewen, who had been receiving routine prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screenings since he was about 50, found out in January 2012 that his PSA levels were higher than normal. “They had gone above the threshold my doctor was comfortable with, so he had me take some antibiotics in case it was an infection. I had to do another test a few weeks later.” The result: His PSA levels had gone up again. Lewen’s general practitioner sent him to a urologist who performed a digital rectal exam and a biopsy on his prostate. By March, he had his diagnosis: early-stage prostate cancer. “My Gleason score was low, so we caught it early,” he says.
That’s when Lewen’s Internet sleuthing skills paid off. He began researching his treatment options. Because he weighed 380 pounds, traditional surgery was not going to work. A radiologist recommended either traditional radiation or brachytherapy, a treatment in which radioactive seeds are implanted in the prostate to kill the cancer cells. “Those options would have been fine, but I kept reading about proton therapy,” he says.
With a piqued interest, Lewen sought out a proton treatment center. There aren’t that many proton treatment centers in the United States, but one just happened to be 15 minutes from Lewen’s house in Batavia, Illinois. During his first visit, he met with doctors, nurses, radiation therapists, and dosimetrists. “They went out of their way to make me feel comfortable,” he says.
After talking it over with his wife and weighing all the consequences of the different treatments, Lewen decided to use proton therapy to treat his prostate cancer. For this type of treatment, doctors insert a small balloon into the rectum to lift up the prostate so radiation can better reach the prostate without affecting other nearby organs and tissues.
He finished his proton treatments in August 2012 and underwent PSA tests every three months for the first year. Since then, he’s had annual visits with his doctor. Overall, Lewen says, he couldn’t have asked for a better treatment experience. “What few side effects I had as a result of treatment were never anything that kept me from my work or from enjoying a normal life,” he says.
“One of the really nice things about medicine today is that we have a lot of options, but one of the really bad things is that we have a lot of options,” he says. “It can get overwhelming, but it’s important to understand your options. I probably talked to 20 different people during the course of my research, but it helped me make the best choice in the end.”
Find a treatment that suits you
Hank Curry doesn’t take life lying down. He hauls hay and competes in roping competitions. So when the Gardnerville, Nevada, resident was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2011, he adopted the same approach to fighting the cancer.
Curry’s doctors encouraged him to have surgery. After all, the cancer was pretty advanced. When he had a biopsy, doctors checked 16 places on the prostate for the presence of cancer. All 16 came back positive. “They said they felt there was a good chance the cancer had spread out of the prostate itself and into my abdominal cavity. They told me we could remove it, but there was no guarantee they would get it all,” he says. “If you’re going through the inconvenience and surgery and the pain to have that surgery and it still might not eliminate the cancer, I realized that wasn’t the surgery for me.”
Instead, Curry underwent nine weeks of radiation, five days a week. He then received Lupron (female hormone) injections to keep his body from producing testosterone that could fuel a recurrence of his cancer. He started his treatments in January 2012 and ended them eight months later in August.
During his treatments, Curry maintained a regular physical regimen, ate well, and tried to keep his body in top shape. This helped him regain his strength and continue with his hay hauling. “I don’t feel like I’m a wimp or anything.”
Don’t give up if the cancer returns
When Alfred Diggs was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 55, he elected to have a radical prostatectomy. “I hadn’t had any symptoms related to the prostate cancer, but I had been getting PSAs for a long time,” says the former pharmacist and healthcare professional from Concord, California. As an African-American, Diggs knew his chances for the cancer were higher — as was the risk it would return.
“My PSA more than doubled in one year, and a biopsy showed that I had prostate cancer in several lobes of my prostate,” he says. “Newer technologies existed, but they have to be around for at least 10 years before I’ll do them.”
“After surgery, I had about three or four months of urinary incontinence — but that’s not unusual,” he says. Diggs also had erectile dysfunction as a result of the treatment, but he was able to treat it with medicine.
He was symptom-free for the next 11 years, but the cancer returned in early 2011. “My PSA started to go up gradually, and if you have recurrent prostate cancer, the only clinical indicator doctors have is your PSA,” he says. “I saw several doctors, and they all told me the same thing — I needed radiation.”
Diggs received 35 radiation treatments over seven weeks. In October 2011, he was finished with his radiation, and his PSA numbers were returning to normal again.
So how does prostate cancer return when there’s no longer a prostate? “If the prostate cancer is totally contained in the prostate, it’s about 100 percent curable. If the cancer cells invade the prostate bed [the tissue surrounding the prostate], there’s a chance the cancer may come back,” Diggs says.
“When the cancer came back, it wasn’t as bad emotionally,” he says. “It didn’t have the same emotional impact. I just thought ‘Here we go again!’”
If you get a diagnosis, Diggs suggests reaching out to other men who have gone through the diagnosis and treatment. “Quite simply, they can tell you things the doctor can’t.”