Lesson learned: Have screening for prostate cancer before observing symptoms

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When Schaen Fox learned last fall that he had prostate cancer, the Lawrence Township resident said he had just one reaction.

“Well, that was interesting.”

Fox, who lives in Lawrence Township, had the usual blood tests that come with an annual physical exam. When his physician looked at the results, his prostate specific antigen (PSA) number was high.

Fox underwent a biopsy which revealed that slightly more than 50 percent of his prostate – a small gland – was cancerous. Some prostate cancers grow slowly, but his was an aggressive form of prostate cancer, he said.

“I had absolutely no idea there was anything wrong with me. I had no symptoms. It was not a slow-growing type of prostate cancer. It was not something that someone my age could ignore,” said Fox, 77.

While men of all ages can develop prostate cancer, about 97 percent of cases occur in men over 50. The National Cancer Institute predicts 164,690 new cases of prostate cancer this year, and 29,430 deaths. Black men are more likely to develop it than white men, and two times more likely to die from it than white men.

And that’s why it is important for men to be screened for prostate cancer through a simple blood test, Fox said. The test is not 100 percent accurate and some men avoid it, but it was the only indication he had prostate cancer.

“If I had waited for any pain, I would have had three months left to live without any quality of life,” he said.

Fox, who is a retired high school teacher, said he thought of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who said that “if you fear death, you can’t really enjoy life.”

“When I got this life-threatening news, I did not run out of the building screaming. I had confidence in my doctor,” Fox said. He said his physician assured him it could be treated.

There are several options to treat prostate cancer – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and proton therapy. Proton therapy is a highly-targeted radiation treatment.

Fox opted for proton therapy, a relatively new treatment, that aims a proton beam at the tumor and causes it to shrink. It does not damage the surrounding tissues or organs.

Proton therapy requires staying motionless for a few minutes while the proton beam is directed at the tumor. It takes place five days a week over a period of several months. The only side effect Fox experienced was fatigue.

“It completely drained my energy level. There was no pain, but I did not have any strength. I felt normal, but I did not have any stamina,” he said.

Looking back, Fox feels he owes a debt to a friend, who is now deceased, who was a member of the team at Stanford University that worked on proton therapy. He said he would have liked to thank him for his work, but that is not possible.