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David Woollcombe - Early Detection Can Save Your Life

My story has a simple message – early detection can save your life.

I learned about prostate cancer in 1979 when my father was diagnosed.  He was 47.  I was 15.  Neither of us had any idea what a prostate was.  While my Dad fought hard, and the medical community threw everything they could at him – surgery, radiation, chemo, hormone treatment – his cancer had spread beyond his prostate by the time it was found and he died three and a half years after being diagnosed.  That was long before PSA tests, and most of those who knew anything about prostate cancer thought of it as an old man’s disease.

Today we know that it is not just something you get in your 70s and die from something else.

Fast forward to 2009.  I went off to my routine annual physical at the age of 44, supremely confident in my perfect health and expecting that the only concern expressed by my doctor would be that I could stand to drink a little less red wine and visit the gym more regularly.

Given my Dad’s history, I was well used to getting the dreaded DRE annually, and I had started getting a PSA test in my late 30s. While my PSA was only slightly elevated, the medical clinic I go to also routinely does an abdominal ultrasound that, among other things, measures the size of the prostate.  The doctor phoned me shortly after my exam to tell me that my prostate had grown significantly since the previous year, and that to be safe he wanted to refer me to a urologist. I remember asking him on a scale of 1 -10, with 1 being nothing to worry about and 10 being I’m going to die of prostate cancer, what number he would put on it.  When he told me a 4 or 5, I knew I had a big problem.

The urologist repeated the DRE and PSA, told me that he thought it likely that I had prostate cancer, and recommended a biopsy. The toughest thing to do next was to tell my wife.  Luckily she is tougher than me, and never let on she was worried.  Men who go through this with a strong spouse are lucky indeed.
I had the biopsy 3 days later.  While that procedure was not pleasant, it’s mercifully brief. The wait for the pathology results is more stressful, although in some ways the waiting and multiple doctor appointments are a good thing, as the extension of the process gave me the time to get my head around the diagnosis and the opportunity to ask the questions I wanted answered.

When my biopsy results came back positive, my doctor recommended surgery as the best treatment option for me.  We talked through the alternatives treatment options, but none made as much sense to me as cutting it out.  And the sooner the better. To my surprise, many of the books on prostate cancer have tables of survivorship statistics for people of different ages, family histories, different grades of cancer, etc.  All of that was comforting of course, but they are only statistics.

All I really wanted to know was whether I was going to live longer than my father. I wasn’t too concerned about the potential side effects of treatment – I knew that none of them would matter if I was dead.
I had a radical prostatectomy a month later.  You don’t know until you get the pathology report back after the operation whether the cancer has spread beyond the prostate or not.  I was lucky that it had not spread, so there was no need for radiation or other treatment, just 4-5 weeks off work to recover from the surgery.

Four years post-surgery I remain cancer free. I see my surgeon every 6 months for a follow-up PSA test.  So long as the PSA comes back undetectable, all is good.

My take-aways from the experience?  

First, get tested.  If prostate cancer is detected early and treated, it is very cureable.  The testing is simple.  You sometimes hear that PSA screening leads to un-needed biopsies.  I say who cares.  Better to know if you have a problem or not.  The PSA test may not be perfect but it’s better than no test at all.

Second, get tested starting at a young age.  Worst case scenario is you spend $30 a year for the PSA test for nothing.  I can’t help noting the irony that OHIP wouldn’t pay for my PSA tests before I had prostate cancer and now that I don’t have a prostate the PSA test is covered. I’m sure that makes sense to a Ministry of Health bureaucrat, but not to me.

It’s all too easy to skip an annual physical.  Book yours today and ask your doctor about getting checked for prostate cancer.

David Woollcombe
Board Member, Prostate Cancer Canada

Relevant Links:
Get more information about the PSA test
Learn more about prostate cancer risk factors
Find out what's happening during Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
Prostate Cancer Canada Releases New Recommendations

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