November 28, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Thoughts on prostate cancer…3 years out

Three years ago I found myself in a tough spot to put it mildly with a prostate cancer diagnosis at age 42.

In October 2009 I had a mildly elevated PSA test result (see more on that below) leading to a prostate biopsy.

At the end of that month I had just received the news that my prostate biopsy had come back positive and the results indicated I had a very dangerous cancer.

This was not a “watchful waiting” kind of cancer, but more like “I’m going to kill you if you don’t do something” kind of cancer.

The pain and heartache I’ve been through because of that cancer are still clear in my mind 3 years later. These experiences range from the literally torture-like prostate biopsy to surgery to countless other indignities and horrible things I’ve been through because of the cancer. But also clear in my mind are the innumerable nice things that so many different people have done for me. A huge thanks to my family for helping me through this. All the kindnesses make the bad stuff seem so much less powerful and helped me retain my human dignity and spirit even under the most terrible circumstances.

Back to when I got the news…there’s really no way to adequately describe the feelings one has at such a time.

Many things were swirling through my mind.

Is my life over? Will I get to see my daughters grow up? How is this possible to have an “old man’s cancer” at age 42? What will the surgery mean for me? Will I also need radiation or chemo?

Will my life ever be the same again?

Now, three years out from that crazy time when it felt like a bomb had been dropped on me, the answer to that last question is most definitely “no”.

Life is not the same. It couldn’t be.

At the same time, I’m doing pretty well.

I just got my latest PSA test results. PSA is the blood test to monitor for the return of prostate cancer in patients like me and its possible first diagnosis (also like me) in men in general.

My latest PSA blood test result at 3 years out from my prostate cancer surgery back in November 2009 is “undetectable”.

What this means is that I’m still in long-term remission. I feel relief more than anything. As my doctor said very wisely to me, while prostate cancer just like most cancers can honestly not be sure to have ever been cured, I should live my life “considering myself cured unless proven otherwise”. I’m trying to keep that mentality. I recall while waiting in the waiting area for one of my appointments with my doc a man next to me was there, he said, because his prostate cancer had returned 14 years after surgery….14 years….

The cancer could come back and I know that, but at this point you can’t get better than “undetectable” and now more than ever in life I know there are no guarantees of anything. So I’m not complaining, but quite the opposite. I’m feeling how lucky I’ve been all things considered.

In fact, maybe someday I’ll have the “luck” of dying of something other than prostate cancer. Yes, I’m being sarcastic in a way because going through cancer makes it abundantly clear that death awaits us all. I also believe that a sense of humor and laughter help one deal with all the horrible stuff.

St. Baldricks head shaving fund raising
St. Baldricks head shaving fund raising withe prostate cancer sometimes on my mind. Paul Knoepfler and Ralph DeVere White.

In some ways my life is actually better now than it was before the cancer. That’s not a cliché, but reality. I’m more appreciative of the life I have and the people in it than I have ever been.

Why?

Because I know how fragile life is.

I’ve always loved science, but if it was possible, cancer has made me love it even more.

I’m gutsier in life including having my head shaved to raise money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in support of children with cancer. See picture above of me with my freshly shaved chrome dome (left) from earlier this year with UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Ralph deVere White (right).

I feel very fortunate to have the job I do as a professor doing what I love as a researcher and teaching amazing students and working with wonderful, brilliant people, including especially the people in my own lab. Thanks, you guys!

Cancer also prodded me on to wear a second hat (or lab coat) of patient advocate (including doing this blog) that I find very rewarding as well and I am so happy to have met all these wonderful patients. Some are cancer patients and some are folks considering stem cell treatments. I’m trying to make a difference.

I think I’ve come to grips in a better way with mortality. A big part of cancer recovery is accepting life for what it is. A messy, scary, exciting, bumpy ride that always ends with death for all of us. I suppose it can also be a tedious, boring, half-asleep experience if one chooses so, but it still ends in death. So why not choose, as much as luck let’s you, to make of life what you can?

I don’t know what life has in store for me. My prostate cancer could come back. I could get some other cancer or be run over by a truck while walking my dog. I could die a thousand different ways and some day I will die of something just as you will, but while I’m alive I’m going to make the best of it and keep a sense of humor and so should you!

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