The commitment to protect the health of other people has guided my career for decades. Whether training Air Force pilots to avoid hypoxia or NASA astronauts to survive in pressurizedspace capsules, this commitment has led me to earn a Master’sdegree in public health. With that background, I could hardly ignore the need to protect my own health. So when I wasdiagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017, I knew I’d have to takesteps to stay well for the long-term, not only to continue my work as a safety engineer at NASA, but also to keep playing golf with my buddies. In hindsight, that decision may have saved my life because, as I eventually learned, African- American men like me are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer as Caucasian men.
According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 6 African Americans will develop prostate cancer and are 2.3 times more likely to die from prostate cancer.1
Due to my years in the Air Force, including going into reduced gravity situations, I was used to getting physicals every year and I always pay attention to my medical status. About 20 years ago,
I started getting the PSA test, which is the prostate-specific antigen test for monitoring potential disease in the prostate. In early 2017, my PSA level had reached 5 and I was advised to see a urologist. Unfortunately, I did receive a prostate cancer diagnosis, but it was in the early stages so I had a few medical options.
1 American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures for African Americans 2016-2018
I could simply do nothing and undergo active surveillance – morecommonly called “watchful waiting” – where my doctor and I would keep tabs on the progress of the cancer. That choice mightwork for some patients. But I was told if I didn’t do anything I’d likely live another 10 years, and even though I’m now 74, I havemore life to live than that!
Another option I considered was a radical prostatectomy, where the entire prostate gland is removed by a surgeon. After that surgery however, my urologist told me it could take up to two years for urinary and sexual function to return, or they might not return at all. Incontinence and impotence are the two common side effects of this procedure. Radical surgery did not seem like the right choice for me.
My urologist also told me I could get radiation, but the long- term side effects were similar to what I’d face with apostatectomy.
Then, one of my friends from the gym let me know he’d seen anad about a procedure called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound, or HIFU. With HIFU, the doctor directs high-frequency sound waves to heat up and burn off diseased tissue in the prostate using an ultrasound probe.
My urologist had reservations about HIFU, but with my public health background, I decided to look at the numbers and get a second opinion. A friend of mine had heard that Dr. Brian Miles at Houston Methodist Hospital was one of the top urologists inthe U.S. and was also an oncologist. After checking Dr. Miles’credentials, I made an appointment to see him.
At the time, I didn’t know Dr. Miles performed the HIFUprocedure. He confirmed the diagnosis and verified that I was a candidate for HIFU. I liked the idea of this non-invasive option. The relatively short down time and the potential for a return to normal urological function were both appealing. I was also elated that I could get the procedure in Houston and would not have to travel far.
I had the procedure a week before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in late August of 2017, and it only took about an hour- and-a-half. I was back home the same day. Luckily, I did not have to evacuate. I returned to work on September 11, 2017.
As Dr. Miles told me before the procedure, I had to wear a catheter for a short period due to swelling in my prostate. This generally occurs after the HIFU treatment. However, the catheter was eventually removed and I graduated to wearing apad for occasional incontinence. Today, I don’t even need thatbecause incontinence is no longer a problem.
I’m very glad I chose the HIFU option. I’m also grateful to all the dedicated people who were by my side, including my family and friends.
I consider myself lucky because I was diligent about receiving my annual physical, and I feel honored to share my challenge with prostate cancer.
My advice to other men – especially African American men who are at even greater risk — is to find a physician you trust and heed the professional advice you are given. I hope in some small way I can encourage someone else who may be reluctant to get the necessary treatment to become a prostate cancer survivor.
By Victor Murray