For many years, Emile Edwards, 70, went faithfully every September to a free prostate cancer screening at a local cancer treatment center.
It was easy to remember to go, since his wife, Theresa, worked as a medical secretary at the facility, the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.
“I usually go every year, but I ended up missing two years” of screenings, in 2008 and 2009, Emile Edwards said.
He wasn’t especially concerned about one or two missed screenings, he said, because he had gotten good checkups the previous years.
In particular, the results of his prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test were always in a low range.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there’s no specific normal or abnormal level of PSA, a protein produced in the prostate that can be used to detect disease.
In the past, according to the institute, many doctors considered a level of below 4 nanograms of PSA per milliliter of blood as the normal range, but several studies have challenged that thinking.
“In general, however, the higher a man’s PSA level, the more likely it is that cancer is present,” according to the institute’s website, http://www.cancer.gov.
In 2007, Edwards’ PSA level was 1.9. In 2010, when he resumed his yearly screening, his PSA level was 7.9, he said.
A subsequent biopsy showed that Edwards had prostate cancer.
After talking with his physicians, Edwards, who also has a pacemaker and a paralyzed left lung because of other health conditions, had a course of 39 radiation treatments that began in October 2010 and ended three months later in December.
At his most recent checkup about a month ago, his PSA level was 0.5, Edwards said.
He retired from the Ethyl Corp. in the late 1980s and, then, just a few years ago, from Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, where he worked in maintenance.
“They saved my life twice” first with the screening and then with the treatment, Edwards said of the staff and physicians of the Cancer Program of Our Lady of the Lake and Mary Bird Perkins, which will hold several screenings this month.
He and his wife, Theresa, now retired from Mary Bird Perkins, have three married children and 10 grandchildren and are looking forward to celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on Feb. 10, 2012.
Prostate cancer, one of the most common cancers in men, begins in the prostate, a small gland located below a man’s bladder. It surrounds the upper part of the urethra, and its function is to secrete a fluid that makes up part of semen.
Symptoms of the cancer include difficulty starting or stopping urine flow; frequent urination, especially at night, and urination that is painful or burns, according to the American Cancer Society.
Other symptoms include blood in the urine or semen; difficult erections; and frequent pain in the lower back, hips or upper thighs.
A diagnosis of prostate cancer can be not only stressful, but confusing, as well.
Even when tests find prostate cancer, it is not clear whether the cancer will be a threat to health or cause death, according to American Cancer Society literature. That’s because many prostate cancers grow slowly and don’t cause any harm.
“The conundrum is, should that (cancer) be treated and which of a multitude of options” should be followed for treatment, said Dr. Will Russell, medical director of the Pennington Cancer Center at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, which held screenings earlier this month.
There are some common risk factors for prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
The risk increases as men get older. The cancer is also more common among African Americans and among those men with a family history of prostate cancer.
And evidence shows that cigarette smoking and diets high in saturated fats increase the risk, said Dr. Mitch Berger, medical director of the Cancer Program of Our Lady of the Lake and Mary Bird Perkins.
The American Cancer Society recommends that African-American men and men with a family history of cancer begin talking with their doctors about the screening topic at age 45, and that other men take up the discussion with their doctors at age 50.
“Probably five or 10 years ago, if you asked a physician, they’d say it’s OK for men over the age of 50 to go ahead, to have the PSA done and a rectal exam,” Berger said.
There’s been a shift in philosophy, though, he said, and “What we’re trying to do is customize it a little bit — to look for risk factors and family history … to assess the risk.”
He encourages men in their 30s to 50s to stay updated on their families’ health histories.
The mainstay treatments for prostate cancer, Russell said, include surgery and radiation, delivered either by an external beam or by the implanting of radioactive “seeds,” tiny pellets containing radioactive material.
Treatments for prostate cancer can have side effects affecting urination, the bowels and/or sex, according to the American Cancer Society.
“The best answer is one size does not fit all,” said Russell of the treatment of the cancer.
“Men go on the Internet and see all these options. They all say ‘This is the right one,’” he said.
“Men often feel they have to be doctors, faced with this knowledge,” Russell said.
The solution, he said, is to seek several opinions.
A man might want to talk with his general physician, a surgeon, a radiation oncologist and perhaps a medical oncologist, he said.
A doctor should be able to present a patient with options and give a recommendation, to help the patient in the decision process, Berger said.
“The benefit of our knowledge is to help the patient make informed decisions,” Berger said.