A Hidden Cancer Could Have Killed Me—If It Wasn’t for This Routine Test
Jim O'Connell prides himself on being health conscious in every way, so when he received a prostate cancer diagnosis—and the news that it was aggressive—he was shocked
Courtesy Jim O'ConnellWhen Jim O’Connell moved to New York City in 1997, he signed up with a new doctor who ordered a basic panel of labs for the then 38-year-old. When a test measuring his PSA (prostate-specific antigen) showed a slightly elevated number, O’Connell was sent to a urologist for further testing. “He did a biopsy, which involves removing twelve pieces of the prostate for examination, and it was quite painful,” he recalls. The biopsy results showed no cancer, and for the next two decades O’Connell assumed he was cancer free, as he never missed appointments and regularly had his blood work done. Little did he know, subsequent doctors were not checking his PSA—and the numbers were climbing.
“There’s been controversy about the PSA test and the validity of its use in detecting cancer,” O’Connell says. “My doctors had changed a couple times, and when I realized the current doctor I had wasn’t testing my PSA—and the others hadn’t either—I just didn’t feel comfortable with that.” After a referral to a new doctor, O’Connell requested that his blood work include a PSA test. The results reveal O’Connell’s PSA levels were sky high—a marker of prostate cancer.
O’Connell, 58 at the time, went to the same urologist he had seen for his initial biopsy; he also got a digital exam. This time, the doctor could feel nodules on his prostate, and the biopsy showed cancer in three of the 12 samples, even though he had none of the symptoms typical of the disease. The symptoms of prostate cancer—here are 5 signs men should never ignore—can include pain or difficulty when urinating, blood present in urine or semen, erectile dysfunction, pain in back, hips, or spine, and weakness or numbness of the legs and feet. “I was shocked. I kept telling myself it wouldn’t be cancer, just like before, and then it was.”
O’Connell’s doctors gauged the severity of his cancer using the Gleason Score—10 indicates the most aggressive tumors: He got a seven, indicating he was at intermediate risk of having an aggressive form. Treatment options for prostate cancer include radiation, hormone therapy, surgery, and active surveillance. But men who get treatment don’t necessarily live longer; here’s what doctors haven’t told you about prostate cancer.
Men who get a Gleason score of six or seven have the option of “watchful waiting“—that’s where doctors monitor their symptoms and PSA levels; often, these men can live out their lives without surgery. O’Connell felt differently: “I opted for the surgery. I just wanted it out of me,” he tells Reader’s Digest. Before choosing his treatment, O’Connell interviewed four different doctors and a radiologist to gather opinions. He made his choice after meeting with Vincent P. Laudone, MD, chief of surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “I immediately felt very comfortable with Dr. Laudone. I had robotic laparoscopic surgery on November 20, 2017, to remove my prostate. After that, it was just a matter of recovering.”
Although prostate surgery can lead to troubles with incontinence and erectile dysfunction, O’Connell says he manages well with Kegel exercises and a workout tailored to his physical recovery. He believes it’s all worth it: “I’m cancer free today—so I’ll take those things any day to be able to say that.”
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men: One out of seven men will receive the diagnosis during their lifetime. While men of all ages can develop the disease, advanced age is the single highest risk factor. African-American men are at greater risk, as well as those who have a family history of prostate cancer. Read about the 7 surprising habits that could lead to prostate cancer.
These days, 59-year-old O’Connell has his PSA level checked every six months. His new motivation is to not only appreciate life but educate others: “If you or a male family member isn’t sure whether his PSA is being tested, ask. If I can help one person to not go through what I went through, or to catch it earlier, then it’s all been worth it.”