If I could have blown a whistle and called a foul in the doctor's office I might have done it. But I wasn't out on the court enjoying my favorite hobby: refereeing basketball games in and around the greater Boston area. Instead, I was trying to make sense of what the doctor was telling me. I could see his mouth moving, but I couldn't understand a word. My Andrea saw what was happening and got my attention, telling me I needed to listen.
After taking a deep breath I finally heard the doctor's diagnosis of my condition: early-stage prostate cancer.
Fortunately for me, I was sitting in the office of Dr. Clifford Gluck, my urologist in Hingham. I say I was fortunate because Dr. Gluck took his time to carefully explain the pros and cons of my medical options, making sure I understood them and what to expect during recovery from each procedure. He went over a range of treatments, from active surveillance all the way to radical surgery, or chemotherapy and radiation.
Then Dr. Gluck told me about one procedure that is widely used overseas but not that common in the U.S. It's called HIFU - which stands for High Intensity Focused Ultrasound. This procedure was less invasive, and my recovery time would be quicker. Even though Dr. Gluck was the first in the Boston area to use it and has been providing the procedure to patients since 2016, he didn't try to sell me on it - like a car salesman who only pushes the car he wants you to buy. He gave equal time to each option.
I decided to seriously consider HIFU when I heard that within a month of having the procedure I'd likely be able to get back to refereeing, working with the school kids, teaching them basketball and helping them stay out of trouble. I checked with my primary physician, and after researching it, he told me that if he had to make the choice, he'd go with HIFU too.
The only downside, as Dr. Gluck explained, was that HIFU wouldn't be covered by my insurance, because the FDA had only cleared HIFU for "prostate tissue ablation" in 2015. Because of that limitation from the FDA, I had to pay the cost out of pocket - even though urologists around the country are using HIFU with their patients at places like Duke University, University of Miami, and University of Chicago.
On the plus side, I also considered that the HIFU procedure would lower the risks of side effects like incontinence or impotence that prostate cancer patients can experience after radiation or a prostatectomy. Because my wife is a 23-year breast cancer survivor, I could relate to the comparison between HIFU and a breast lumpectomy - where the surgeon removes only the area containing cancerous tissue, not the entire breast. With HIFU, the process is similar, because the doctor uses a probe to target the exact location of a suspicious area within the prostate and directs the ultrasound waves to destroy only that diseased tissue - which spares the remainder of the prostate gland. Since the gland isn't totally removed, there are often less side effects than with the other medical options.
During recovery, I got stronger and stronger. I was able to jog and lift weights within 6 to 8 weeks and I could run up and down the court. I did have a catheter initially, and after it was removed I wore protective undergarments because there was some leakage in the early stages. After about 6 months, leakage dramatically declined. Now, leakage is rarely an issue for me. Regarding the two major side effects (incontinence and impotence), neither was a major issue.
In the first year, I went in for follow-ups every three months and today I go every 6 months. That follow-up is not too different from the schedule that patients follow when they do active surveillance when the prostate cancer is slow growing - so I feel like I have the best of both worlds after HIFU. Plus, if the cancer recurs, I can still get another HIFU procedure, which is unlike what happens with radiation treatments because they usually cannot be repeated. There doesn't seem to be any sign of recurrence because my PSA tests are much better now and Dr. Gluck says he's seen vast improvements in my results.
I'm very glad I went through the HIFU procedure and I only wish more men would pay attention to taking care of their bodies. When I tell my fellow African-American friends about how important it is to have an annual prostate exam, they look at me like I have two heads. They need to get over the fear or embarrassment of having their prostates checked - especially because African-American males are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer as white men.
I want all men to know that prostate cancer can be corrected early. It's all about taking care of your health, being there for your loved ones, and maybe getting to do what you enjoy for a few more years - like refereeing basketball games!
Thomas Newell, 64, lives in Randolph, MA with his wife, Andrea, and retired from Verizon in 2015 after working for 34 years for the company. He has two sons, Terrell and Jerel. A nephew, Alex Newell, on Broadway, in the Musical "Once Upon This Island," whose father, my brother passed away in 1999 from colon cancer.