Talking about Our Family Cancer Risk With My Son

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Generations of cancer leads to the risk that must be addressed head-on, but the lessons we can take from our own family members who have had cancer is valuable to pass on.

What’s the first thing you do when you receive your cancer diagnosis?

You cry a bucket of tears. You tear your hair out. You scream at the top of your lungs. You go numb with anxiety. All of this at the same time. Chaos rules the day.

Until, calmly resolute in one clarifying moment, you know you must find a purpose to go on, to make your family’s life better along with your own.

When the Risks Are Very Real

That moment for me came in 2014 when I realized that I had to drive to Birmingham, Alabama, where my son lived at the time. I had important news to share with him: I had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he was at a heightened risk to contract the disease as well.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), his risk for prostate cancer is more than doubled because I am his father.

Family risks in the cancer world should never be dismissed out of hand. It’s serious business. It was my responsibility to let my son know of my diagnosis and to encourage him to get screened, or, at the very least, to consult with his doctor about the early signs of the disease.

This 400-mile trip was all the more important because my father also lived with prostate cancer. The family risk was compounded.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Prostate cancer is estimated to account for 191,930 new cases and 33,330 deaths in 2020 in the United States. It is the second leading cancer death in American men, trailing only lung cancer, according to the ACS.

During our lifetime we men have a one-in-nine chance of being diagnosed with this cancer, but only one in 41 of us will die from it, according to the ACS. I and more than 3.1 million other Americans are living with the disease. A fact that should make taking the risks all the more serious.

Dad’s Timely Advice

My father, who died of a stroke in 2009, set me on the proper course. I was in my late 40s suffering from frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom and the inability to empty my bladder completely. He took me aside to tell me about his own treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or enlarged prostate.

He urged me to consult with my doctor and I, too, was diagnosed with BPH. Like dad, I was put on medication to relieve the symptoms.

From then on, I had an annual prostate exam and tracked my PSA numbers just like dad. That routine screening proved invaluable. More than 15 years after my first PSA results, the numbers started to spike and I was referred to a urologist, who found a suspicious nodule and ordered a biopsy. Surgery, a Stage 3 diagnosis, recurrence, radiation and hormone therapy all followed, but I am now grateful to be in remission.

Reaching Out with Humility

I wanted to be a resource for my son as my father had been for me. But I did not go to Birmingham armed with statistics or the worst-case scenarios for prostate cancer. My son is perfectly capable of making his own medical decisions, but he needed at least a heads up about my diagnosis and how it could impact him.

I knew that we men are not always very good at revealing our own health status to those we love. But that’s in ordinary times and this was an extraordinary situation.

I wasn’t sounding the alarm as much as passing along important information in a thoughtful, considerate, calm manner.

A Sacred Duty

I could have reached out to my son via Skype or Zoom, but that definitely would have fallen short. This was news best served up in person – man to man, father to son.

This trip became a sacred duty, and, I believe, became the greatest expression of my love for my son. It gave my life, shattered with the news of a cancer diagnosis, fresh meaning. And I owe it all to my own father, who took the time to underscore the importance of good prostate health.

Thanks, dad, for encouraging me every step of the way!