As the Wife of a Prostate Cancer Survivor I’m Eternally Grateful for Colorado’s Early Blood Draw
As we approach the season for expressing gratitude and good wishes to friends and family, I have one important thing among many to be thankful for: Colorado’s Early Blood Draw program.
Why would I focus my gratitude on that?
Because it may have saved my husband’s life!
Let me explain…
My husband, Les, was able to get a basic blood panel workup in Gunnison, CO through the Early Blood Draw program, which was covered by our health insurance. One of the things they checked was his PSA level. Doctors use the level of a man’s PSA — which stands for prostate-specific antigen — as one of the screening tools for diagnosing prostate cancer. When he was first checked in 2016, his PSA was at 3, which is towards the normal end of the scale. But then, with later blood tests, it started going up and up and up. By March of 2017 it hit 9.77!
During that year, Les was advised to see a urologist who did a biopsy that came back negative the first time. But as his PSA level kept rising the doctors did an MRI and saw a tumor. By May of 2017 they did the biopsy again and it was positive.
My active, healthy husband of 27 years was now a man facing a diagnosis of prostate cancer.
It’s a disease that affects almost three million men in our country. But it usually shows up for most men after they’re past age 65. Les was 56 — and had no history of cancer on his side of the family.
After we got the diagnosis, we had a lot of soul-searching to do. We’ve always been an active family, camping in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter. We love hiking in the mountains and our motto for campfire dinners is “If it can’t be on a stick, we probably won’t be eating it!” We’re also very fortunate that we get to spend time with family, since our daughters and their husbands — along with our three amazing grandchildren — live only a few hours away and we all get together whenever we can.
So, when we had to look at all of the options for treating prostate cancer, we knew it was an important decision that could affect the quality of life for Les. We hoped he’d be able to keep taking part in all of the outdoor sports he enjoys, like hunting, and riding his dirt bike.
We met with Dr. Craig Peterson, a urologist at San Juan Urology in nearby Montrose. He is a straight shooter with a great sense of humor. Dr. Peterson gave us several options to consider.
Maybe it’s because I’m the practical one in the family or maybe it’s because I’ve worked at the Gunnison Bank for ten years, but once we learned about the five options from Dr. Peterson, I made a big spreadsheet with three columns for each treatment. Then we did our own research, plus I went to the websites Dr. Peterson recommended and I listed the pros and cons, and questions for each option.
Les and I discussed the choices and ruled out radiation as well as cryotherapy which could have left him with side effects for the rest of his life. We narrowed down the list to two main options, and considered radical prostatectomy surgery because it would remove the tumor. But it would also remove the entire prostate, making it highly likely that Les would have to deal with side effects of incontinence and impotence. I remember Les was also concerned about what would happen during surgery if the wrong nerves were cut, so he was not a big fan of that choice.
The second option at the top of our list was a procedure called high intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU. Because his cancer was in the early stages and Les was healthy — and still relatively young — Dr. Peterson said he was a good candidate for HIFU and he was trained to do the procedure. In fact, San Juan Urology is the only urology practice in all of Colorado that offers HIFU.
When I dug into the research for HIFU, I learned a lot of new terms and information, such as the fact that the FDA had cleared HIFU for something called “prostate tissue ablation.” That means the urologist directs ultrasound waves at precise points in the prostate to “ablate” or burn only the diseased tissue.
Although it’s been successfully used in Europe and around the world on more than 50,000 patients, the FDA requires 10 years of data before they approve certain treatments for cancer. We weren’t going to wait that long, and the more we learned about the safety of the treatment, the more it made sense. On top of that, the international studies show that the risk of impotence and incontinence is greatly reduced for HIFU patients.
After Les went through the HIFU procedure, which was done on an outpatient basis, Dr. Peterson had to put in a catheter but it was out in less than a week and he didn’t experience any incontinence. But Les had accumulated a month’s worth of sick leave from his job as an Equipment Operator with the Streets Department of the City of Gunnison, so he was able to take his time recovering, both mentally and physically.
Les underwent the HIFU procedure in July of 2017 and I can report that he’s had no side effects that have interfered with our sex life! Ha ha!
The only downside to HIFU is that it is not covered by our insurance because Les hasn’t reached Medicare age, so we had to take out a loan that we’re paying off over time. I don’t mind that, because it’s much more costly if you don’t have your health. We also know that if his cancer recurs someday, we still have the other options available to us, including repeating the HIFU procedure if necessary.
All in all, we feel very lucky. We have a great doctor who gave us straightforward information about the choices available to us. My hope for others facing the same diagnosis is that they too will do the research and check out all of their options.
Our story could have turned out differently if Les’s cancer had not been caught in the early stages. That early detection would not have happened without a simple test — which is why I count the Colorado Early Blood Draw program among my many blessings!