How cancer taught me to be a better doctor

How cancer taught me to be a better doctor

by Dr. Jim Walters


A couple years ago, my wife encouraged me to a get a PSA, a screening test for prostate cancer. I was adopted as an infant and had no idea about my family health history, so I added the test to a list of blood work I was getting done — thinking nothing of the chore.

The test isn't perfect, so when I got a high score — indicating I had cancer — I tried to explain it away. I'd read online that a PSA score can go up after a bike ride, and I'd just ridden 30 miles the night before. I thought I might have chronic prostatitis, an infection of the prostate gland, minus the symptoms.

I was also 41. Prostate cancer is usually found in men over 50 — eight in 10 who have it are over the age of 65.

But biopsies confirmed what I no longer could deny. Fear overwhelmed me. I did a lot of crying after the diagnosis. I tried to be strong for my kids but broke down when I told them I had cancer.

All under 10 years old at the time, the three of them were quiet. The only response I recall came from the youngest, Zoe, 4 at the time: "I think Sam really likes Dad because he's crying," she said of my then 9-year-old son. We all cried.

After researching my options, I had robotic radical prostatectomy — surgery to remove the prostate — in May last year.

A year and a half later, there's no sign of the cancer. I'm doing great, connecting with patients in a way I wasn't able to before.

Right before my surgery, I told a patient very sick with liver cancer a little about my predicament. He left wishing me luck and it was the first thing he asked about when I saw him about six weeks later.

As a physician, I'm more patient now and no longer focus just on how patients are doing physically. I ask how they're doing emotionally with their disease. Most of what they get from me is someone to listen to their fears and concerns.

I worked out and ran a lot after my diagnosis. I sat down in the evenings with my wife and talked about what we were going through. I cried quite a bit. That was probably the most important part of working through it for me.

When I talk to someone newly diagnosed with cancer, I often ask if they've cried yet, especially men. It gives me some idea of how they are coping. I just try to help people get through it using a path that works for them.

My hope is that, with continued research, we'll have a much better prostate cancer test when my sons are my age. But combined with seeing your doctor and getting a digital rectal exam, a PSA is the best we have right now. I'm alive today because of it.

Like breast cancer, prostate cancer affects someone in almost everyone's family, one in six men. But it's quite survivable, especially if caught early. I for one am glad I'll be around to share my experience with my patients, and anyone else for that matter, for many years to come.

Dr. Jim Walters is an emergency physician based in Grand Haven, Mich., and an EMS medical director for Ottawa County. A runner, he completed a sprint triathalon — 500 meter swim, 20 kilometer bike ride, 5 kilometer run — just eight weeks after surgery to address prostate cancer. He and his family have raised more than $4,000 for the Prostate Cancer Foundation through Athletes for a Cure.

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What is the best test for identifying prostate cancer?

Dr. Michael Koch, a highly rated urologist and chairman of the urology department at IU School of Medicine, recommends the PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, blood test to men over the age of 40 and younger than 70, especially if they have risk factors such as a family history of prostate cancer. The PSA test measures a protein produced in the prostate gland, which can signal cancer if detected at higher-than-normal levels.

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