Fifteen years ago, I helped save a man's life...
It's a moment that I will always remember. But I hardly did a thing, compared with the tenacity of this man whose life was on the line...
In December 2006, I wrote an article on prostate health in my weekly S&A Health Report.
In it, I went over the basics of prostate cancer, including common risk factors and symptoms.
While reading my article, one reader named Ron realized he might have prostate cancer.
Ron hadn't seen the doctor for 40 years, because he never got sick. At 73, he generally felt great. But after reading my article, he realized that he had five of the six prostate cancer symptoms "I mentioned." So, he immediately called up his doctor and tried to schedule a visit.
He was told it'd be six weeks before he could be seen... Feeling the urgency of the issue, Ron then called a urologist who laughed at him, claiming that prostate cancer has no symptoms. Forging ahead in the face of adversity, Ron finally found a urologist who would see him right away.
Turns out, Ron did have prostate cancer... Luckily, his persistence led to treatment. And his treatment – a combination of radiation and drug therapy (Lupron, specifically) – led to remission. Ron later wrote to me thanking me for saving his life.
Recently, a reader reminded me of Ron's story. I realized many folks reading my work for the first time may need some of the same information that Ron needed about prostate cancer...
Because it's dealing with our "private parts," prostate cancer is a tough topic for men to discuss. But we need to...
According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight men will be diagnosed with it at some point in their life. In medical school, we were taught that if all men lived to be 120 years old, every single one would get prostate cancer.
Fortunately, only around one in 41 men with prostate cancer actually die from it. Most people die from something else because it's a very slow-growing disease.
If you have prostate cancer, your age, overall health, and how your cancer responds to treatment will all have an impact on your ability to survive it.
And like most forms of cancer, detecting it early reduces its ability to spread and increases your chance of survival. So don't be shy when it comes to questioning progressive changes in your body. Most men don't notice the symptoms early on, when it's most treatable.
Prostate cancer symptoms are embarrassing and difficult to talk about because we're taught to keep our "private areas" private. But whatever you do, don't ignore your body...
Feelings of embarrassment, fear, and uncertainty won't last once you're meeting your problems head-on... But the ramifications of suffering in silence will persist.
Six common prostate cancer symptoms are:
- Frequent urination (peeing seven or more times in 24 hours, if you've consumed 68 ounces of fluid throughout the day)
- Trouble starting or maintaining flow during urination
- Burning or pain during urination or ejaculation
- Erectile dysfunction
- Chronic pain in the lower back, hips, or pelvis
- Stiffness in the upper legs
If you have these symptoms and risk factors, see your doctor to discuss the possibility of prostate cancer. Ask your doctor to do a digital rectal exam – it's not quite as bad as it sounds, just awkward. He should also get the blood level of your prostate-specific antigen ("PSA"). These tests are simple and inexpensive... but be wary of the timing.
Longtime subscribers know I've warned against getting an unnecessary PSA test for years. These tests are notorious for giving false-positive results because benign factors can cause elevated PSA levels. Inflammation, infection, recent ejaculation, and even riding a bike can increase your PSA levels.
So, have a candid conversation with your doctor about your concerns regarding anything that may artificially elevate your PSA. And don't be afraid to ask for a second – or even third – PSA test for comparison a few days later.
And one important point: take the time to find a good doctor. You want a doc with a good record of catching prostate cancer early. Call a couple local oncologists (cancer doctors) and find out who sends them the most prostate cancer patients. Yes, just call up and ask for the information. Use it to find the best doctor out there.
Finally, understand your treatment options. Don't be afraid to ask questions and get a second opinion. Overtreatment can have serious side effects.
About 30% of men with prostate cancer have a simple treatment: watch and wait. This is called active surveillance, and it means these folks simply keep a close eye on their cancer and PSA levels. Many don't need any treatment.
A 2015 study using data from Johns Hopkins found that fewer than 1% of men with low-risk prostate cancer on active surveillance died from prostate cancer. A similarly small number progressed to a metastatic phase of cancer where treatment is more difficult.
But some forms do require treatment.
You should know, however, that most treatments can lead to incontinence and erectile dysfunction... sometimes permanently. You'll need to discuss with your oncologist what the best standard of care is for your type of cancer and how to manage any side effects.
Know your risks, recognize the symptoms, and find a good doctor. You don't want to ignore this problem and hope it goes away. If you're nervous about an in-person visit, see if your doctor will do a phone call or an online-video appointment to talk about the problems you're having.
What We're Reading...
- If you have prostate cancer and want to connect with a support group, here are links to two organizations with resources to help: Prostate Cancer Foundation and Cancer Care.
- Something different: A ferret named Elizabeth Ann could become the first cloned mammal to help save an endangered species.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 1, 2022