Calm in the face of cancer

By Fernand Gingras December 1, 2011

I wasn’t overly concerned about my health when I decided to respond to an ad published in a Québec newspaper by the Centre hospitalier de l’Université Laval: Dr. Fernand Labrie was looking for men for a study on prostate cancer. Like the rest of the participants, I agreed to have an annual digital rectal exam (DRE) and a prostate-specific antigent (PSA) blood test — that was all there was to it. And for five or six years, nothing came of these tests.

When my PSA started to rise, however, I was advised not to take any chances due to my family history — my father had died from complications of prostate cancer. In fact, as it turned out, I learned that I also had the disease. My doctor went through all the different treatment options with me: prostatectomy, radiation therapy, active surveillance (not recommended in my case), etc. After doing my research and discussing further with my doctor, I settled on brachytherapy (radioactive implants), because it seemed to me that this treatment would be less exacting and the side effects less bothersome.

It was the lead-up to the procedure that I found particularly difficult. I had several biopsies, a bone scan, physical exams to assess my overall health — no problem there. On the other hand, when it came to the cystoscopy (a scope is inserted into the urethra through the penis to visualize the prostate and determine where and how many seeds to implant)… let’s just say it was no picnic but I got through it. The good news, once those tests were behind me, was that my cancer was localized and the doctor who performed my brachytherapy was a leading expert in the field. This was in 2003.

I was able to get treatment without delay largely because of my enrolment in the research study, which had assured me regular follow-up that led to the eventual discovery of the cancer. After the diagnosis, and the time it took to inform myself and decide on brachytherapy, things quickly fell into place. The operation went well: I was under general anesthetic for less than an hour, spent a couple of hours in the recovery room to check my urinary function, and returned home with no overnight hospital stay.

Urinary incontinence was a problem for a few months. This consisted of urgency in the morning, but everything worked well the rest of the day. This side effect didn’t interfere with my normal activities, although I was worried because we’d planned a trip to Spain for two months following the operation. The incontinence problem resolved gradually, until finally I could dispense entirely with the use of pads (worn just in case) as well as medication. Fortunately, I escaped some of the other consequences of treatment such as fatigue and, especially, erectile dysfuntion. Today, I’m completely cancer-free.

I realize not everyone is so lucky. For example, one of my brothers was also treated for prostate cancer with brachytherapy, but he suffered serious complications.

The reality of cancer weighs heavily in our family… My son, who’s in his 40s, is very aware of his risk and acts in consequence by going for regular medical checkups. My two daughters are also fully sensitized to the issue, having watched their mother go through breast cancer. We’ve learned to react with a certain equanimity in the face of cancer. Our approach is to try to work toward a solution. Don’t delay…

While personally, I haven’t felt the need to join a prostate cancer support group, I’ve answered lots of questions from men in my circle and I think I’ve helped “enlighten” a few on the concept of annual screening. Given the prevalence of this disease in Canada (one in seven men), I’d like to send this message to men who haven’t been diagnosed: Young or old, go for it! It doesn’t hurt to have a PSA test or a DRE. Join a research study or arrange for that annual medical checkup now! It’s not complicated. And if you’re like me, you won’t regret it, because today’s treatments can often lead to a quick cure if the cancer’s caught in time.