My newfound commitment to taking personal responsibility for my health was as serious as a heart attack. When the subject of blood tests came up, I told my doctor to “give me every test available, including a pregnancy test.” That included the PSA test, even though conventional wisdom was that men didn’t need to begin getting PSA tests until age 50, and even Black men, who are at higher risk, could wait to age 40. Fortunately, my doctor granted my request (which is why he’s still my doctor today), testing for my PSA levels every year since.
Nearly 18 years later, that decision would be the key to saving my life. I was 49 when my PSA levels, which had been stable for more than 15 years, had a small uptick, just as it did with Buffett. That led to me to see a specialist, urologist Dr. Jonathan Vapnek, who conducted additional PSA tests, and ultimately a biopsy, that confirmed that I had early-stage prostate cancer. Discovering the disease at such an early stage gave me a number of advantages, the main one being the luxury of time. Instead of having to choose a treatment option in panic and desperation, I could afford to start with a strategy of “watchful waiting,” monitoring my condition with quarterly PSA tests for a year while I explored and considered treatment options. With the recommendation of Dr. Vapnek, I ultimately chose to have my prostate removed via robotic prostatectomy, performed by Dr. David Samadi, the world-renowned surgeon who developed the Samadi Modified Advanced Robotic Technique (SMART), which, among other advantages, spares the nerves critical to continence and healthy sexual function (both are at greater risk with both traditional surgery and radiation). Had my prostate cancer gone undetected until a later stage, or if I did not have the time to explore treatment alternatives, this option might not have been open to me.
I knew that as a Black man, my prostate cancer risk was increased. (It’s not lost on me that Buffet is more than 30 years older than I was when I was diagnosed.) I also knew that genetics and family history are major risk factors. However, I knew next to nothing about my family health history. My father was not a part of my life growing up and my maternal grandfather died when I was an infant. I’ve since learned that my father, now in his late 70s, is a prostate cancer survivor, as was his father, who lived to the age of 98 before succumbing to the disease. My doctor—who has always credited my passion for exercise, fitness, vitamin supplementation and nutrition with protecting me from disease—once bluntly told me that when it comes to prostate cancer, the question is not “if,” but “when.” His directness was further motivation to stay vigilant as I got older.
It is important to note that I have never experienced any of the symptoms—enlarged prostate, difficulty with urination, erectile dysfunction—commonly associated with prostate cancer, either before or since my surgery more than a year ago. (In fact, today it often seems as if my prostate cancer diagnosis and surgery never happened.) To wait for prostate cancer to announce its presence via symptoms, instead of seeking it out via early and regular digital rectal exams and PSA tests, and other means as they become available, is literally playing Russian roulette. As each of my doctors told me, if you wait until you’ve got symptoms, you’ve waited too long.
Men, make an annual physical non-negotiable. If you’re over the age of 30, make annual PSA tests a part of your preventive health regimen, not because you’re likely to get prostate cancer that early (you’re not), but because the sooner you can establish a baseline for your PSA levels, the easier it will be to detect a threat if it inexplicably spikes. Prostate cancer can be a deadly killer—all the more reason not to turn your back on it. The earlier you engage this invader, the more power you have to repel it before it can kill you or damage your quality of life.