D. Barbara McWhite
D. Barbara McWhite

Now that I’ve get your attention… I want to talk frankly with you about prostate cancer and the need to get regular cancer screenings.

In November 2015, my husband, Mike, and I were busily and excitedly preparing for the upcoming holiday season. And as was usual, we would see our doctors for our yearly physical and gynecological exams.

At ages 58 and 57, respectively, Mike and I made these wellness appointments each year with no thought other than that we would receive the usual good reports.

As the family “general,” the only additional concerns I had were that, as a former cigarette smoker, Mike be given regular CT scans to rule out the presence of lung cancer and that he get regular colonoscopies.

The previous year, I had sent Mike off to the doctor with orders to request a full physical, believing that it would include a digital rectal exam and PSA (both tests for prostate cancer), but patients are required to fast before a full blood panel, and Mike never made time to return for blood tests that would have included the PSA test.

So, determined to see that he received a complete examination this time, I had him fast the night and morning before the exam and accompanied him to the appointment to “oversee” his visit. (Can I get an “Amen” from all the wife/generals who have had to do the same?)

My husband is a very active man and has enjoyed excellent health. His weight is high-school perfect, and his only daily medications are a pill for high blood pressure and a daily baby aspirin. So we weren’t surprised to read through the results of his physical to find good news on all fronts – until we got down to the yellow highlighted blurb at the bottom of the report, which read, “PSA above the upper limit of normal…”

WHAT?

What was this? What did this mean? Was this anything significant? All were questions that filled our heads as he completed 10-days of prescribed antibiotics to rule out prostate infection and waited for a re-test 23 days later.

Then finally, we had the results: PSA, higher! Free PSA, low enough to put him in the category of 30-35% possibility for cancer.

So we trudged off to the urologist with fear and trembling. And for me, unrelenting guilt that I had failed to remember to get my husband tested for prostate cancer- a disease my father was treated for and his two brothers had died from and at least two of Mike’s uncles had had.

On January 8…MRI… we waited…results:2 suspicious lesions, with “one, moderately and the other, highly concerning for malignancy.”

And on February 12…biopsy.

To say that was a scary time would be an understatement. There were tears, vivid and morbid imaginings and fervent prayers.

Then on February 18, we received the news: Cancer.

My husband has prostate cancer!

Cancer! We could barely think the thought or utter the word.

Over the last few weeks we have kept medical appointments and made decisions, and on April 13, Mike will undergo surgery.

Like other newly diagnosed cancer patients and their families, we have been floored by Mike’s diagnosis. But along with the shock is an overwhelming gratitude that, thru PSA testing, we have likely caught this disease in time — that with treatment and follow-up, the man I love will be around to drive me crazy for many more years.

My husband is a private man, and especially with prostate cancer, there is a temptation to keep things quiet. But we also realize that, if Mike had waited additional months or years to be PSA tested, that his prognosis would likely have been different.

So he has given me permission to write this column because the need to save lives overrides his desire for privacy. We want to be voices of experience to educate and urgently implore men to be tested for prostate cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society:

“Other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men. The American Cancer Society’s estimates for prostate cancer in the United States for 2015 are:

  • About 220,800 new cases of prostate cancer
  • About 27,540 deaths from prostate cancer
  • About 1 man in 7 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime.

Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind only lung cancer. About 1 man in 38 will die of prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer occurs more often in African-American men and in Caribbean men of African ancestry than in men of other races. African-American men are also more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer as white men.

Having a father or brother with prostate cancer more than doubles a man’s risk of developing this disease. The risk is much higher for men with several affected relatives.

The American Cancer society recommends PSA testing as follows:

  • Age 50 for men who are at average risk of prostate cancer and are expected to live at least 10 more years.
  • Age 45 for men at high risk of developing prostate cancer. This includes African Americans and men who have a first-degree relative (father, brother, or son) diagnosed with prostate cancer at an early age (younger than age 65).
  • Age 40 for men at even higher risk (those with more than one first-degree relative who developed prostate cancer at an early age).

Yes, we know the test is unpleasant (a stick in the arm and a doctors finger up your rear end), and for the few seconds it takes to get it, you have our permission to think about football scores.

But make that appointment today! Get a digital rectal exam. Find out your PSA level and, along with your doctor, monitor it yearly. If you are at the suggested age and your doctor fails to recommend PSA testing, ask to receive it. Educate your sons and remind your male family members and friends to get tested.

These are tests that can save your life.

D. Barbara McWhite grew up in York County, S.C., and now lives in Orange Park, Fla.