'Later is not the way to go': Group raises awareness, lends support in fight against prostate cancer

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2010

Paul Fischer is happy to talk about his prostate.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Prostate cancer survivors Paul Fischer and Randy Berg talk about their experiences during an interview Saturday in Soldotna. Fischer was diagnosed about two and a half years ago. Berg received his diagnosis a year ago this week. Both encourage men to receive annual exams to spot the disease while it is still easily treated.

And if any men are willing to talk about their prostate glands, Fischer is happy to listen. He will probably even tell them to "get their butt" over to the doctor's office to get a PSA test, which measures prostate specific antigens in a man's blood.

Fischer wasn't always so open. Like a lot of men, he used to keep his personal medical conditions to himself. But, as his wife Joyce pointed out: "After all those balloon thingys, who's modest anymore?"

She was referring to the balloons used in proton beam therapy treatment that protect a man's healthy cells to prevent impotence -- a possible side effect of prostate cancer treatment.

Fischer was diagnosed with prostate cancer two and a half years ago and traveled to Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif. for immediate proton treatment. With the therapy, which uses protons instead of X-rays to target cancerous tumors, Fischer beat the disease.

Now Fischer is part of a local fraternity dedicated to helping other men triumph over the illness.

The Kenai Peninsula Prostate Awareness Group meets at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month at Central Peninsula Hospital.

September is prostate cancer awareness month, a major promotional opportunity for the group.

Dan Sexton, who took the reins of the group after his own successful bout with prostate cancer, said the goal is to help men figure out what to do after receiving the initial frightening news.

"When you get a doctor telling you you have prostate cancer, your whole world kind of stops in that moment," Sexton said. "When you finally hear those words, your world shutters to a halt."

The group typically discusses new information about prostate cancer treatments and nutritional information. Anyone is welcome to attend, and the members give support to each other and offer guidance and information to any man seeking help after being diagnosed with the disease.

Sometimes the group conducts live videoconferences with Anchorage's prostate support group, which belongs to the national organization called "US Too."

Randy Berg, 57, contacted Sexton when a biopsy revealed his prostate cancer last summer.

"I called him and asked him if he had time to discuss it. He said he had just a couple of minutes, and 50 minutes later we were still talking," Berg said.

So Berg attended a prostate awareness meeting and was somewhat surprised to see men discussing such a seemingly personal topic so candidly.

"The guys were pretty open," Berg said. "A lot of people are a little bit paranoid about asking questions about it. They don't want to pry, I think maybe, but it's something people need to discuss and educate themselves on, and they need people to ask questions to about it."

Sexton says meetings are mostly about education. There is so much jargon and numbers associated with the disease that it can be overwhelming. Talking to other men who have been through the process can help make sense of it all, Sexton says.

"When you are first diagnosed you don't have a clue what to do," Sexton said. "We try to give literature so they can make intelligent decisions for their own personal case."

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind only lung cancer. One in six men will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lives, and about one man in 36 will die of prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

But if it's caught early, the disease is usually treatable.

"It's not a death sentence," Berg said. "It's more of a hurdle in life. It's just a bump in the road that you've got to go over."

Per Sexton's positive recommendation, Berg went to Loma Linda and underwent proton beam therapy treatment this winter. His PSA count was lowered about 75 percent after the treatment. Berg credits the peninsula's awareness group with pointing him in the right direction.

"If you meet people who have been through the same thing and have come through it pretty good, the fear element about treatments in the future is reduced," Berg said.

Berg said prostate cancer actually changed his life for the positive. After facing his own mortality, he spends more time with his family and has learned to focus on the good things.

"You think about your family and your friends in a different way once you've had cancer," Berg said. "I've slowed down a little bit to smell the roses, to enjoy every little experience and to spend a little more time listening."

But it's only a positive experience after coming through it. That's why the group encourages every man 45 and older to go for a yearly PSA exam to ensure that the disease is caught in its early stages.

"A lot of men are macho and don't want to admit that they have something. They have that attitude that (they're) a teenager and (they're) invincible," Fischer said.

"If someone had a cut on their arm, you'd say, 'You need to get that fixed,' and they would. But this is tougher because you can't see it.

"They say 'I'll get to it later,'" Fischer said.

"But later is not the way to go."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.

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