California Forum

It’s too late to prevent cancer in his family

February is Cancer Prevention Month, but in my family it is too late. Not only am I afflicted, but so is our oldest son. Our other two sons are genetically vulnerable, since my dad, one grandfather and one uncle all were prostate cancer patients.

When I was diagnosed with the disease, I determined to go all out to defeat it, side effects be damned. Surgery revealed that my cancer had spread. To me, that was an invitation to a street fight. I underwent 7½ weeks of radiation, plus six months of combined hormone therapy.

I volunteered for a clinical trial at UC San Francisco Medical Center and was placed on an immunotherapy. It pushed down my PSA level and gave me a sense I was punching back. While I didn’t figure to win, I was nevertheless happy to be engaging the enemy.

Hearing news of my illness then, one colleague tried to assure me that prostate cancer wasn’t as serious as most other malignancies. Her grandfather had lived for years with it, she said. I had no doubt that was true, but I had also recently buried chums who apparently hadn’t gotten the message about how benign the disease was.

A Mayo Clinic pathologist explained to me why he thought the disease seemed trivial to some: “This is a genetically diverse cancer. One patient might survive a long time, while the next one is in deep trouble right away.”

The guys in the prostate cancer support group I joined were struggling not only to control the malignancy but also with the toll aggressive treatments can take on survivors: incontinence, impotence, gynecomastia, shattered confidence. As with other cancers, early detection is the key to survival, but many patients seemed to receive conflicting advice from clinicians. A seemingly constant plea at support group meetings was: “Which is best for me? Surgery? Radiation? Hormones? Watchful waiting?”

Prostate cancer has long been known as an old man’s disease, the body’s way of shutting down male sexuality. In my family, it struck me and then my son in our vigorous 50s. And I do mean struck. One bitter wag at the support group said that the reason so few folks recognize the prostate cancer challenge is “location, location, location: It grows in the bodies of older guys.”

Strangely, men haven’t much spoken up or, like AIDS advocates, acted up. I tend to agree with what another friend suggested: That is a result of a male need to appear strong, silent and in control – to be real men.

Pink ribbons can be found everywhere during October, Breast Cancer Awareness month. How many blue ribbons did you see displayed during September, Prostate Cancer Awareness month? It’s time for men to ramp up prostate-cancer activism. Seeking attention wouldn’t be a sign of weakness.

At a party shortly after I was diagnosed, another colleague asserted that if breast cancer were a men’s disease “it would’ve been cured years ago.” I corrected her about breast cancer, but stopped there. I didn’t want to pit one cancer against another. Both are terrible, and I pray for the men and women who are dealing with either of them. Most of all, though, I now pray for my son.

Gerald Haslam is a California author. His most recent book is “Leon Patterson: A California Story.” Contact him at