Norwood “Woody” Sloan
Survivor Turned Warrior Against Prostate Cancer
Updated from article: June 10, 2008
“I’m a more compassionate person because of prostate cancer. I was used to giving orders. Now I’m not interested in giving orders as much as listening.”
I spent 20 years in the Air Force and then worked for AT&T management for 20 years and never called in sick. “My health was excellent and I never missed a day of work.” So it came as a surprise to me, a Philadelphia native, right before my retirement from AT&T, I started experiencing problems. It was Christmas Eve, 1990 in Washington, DC. I was driving on the Beltway to attend a holiday office party and needed to pull over at every available rest stop. That’s when I realized I had a problem. My family doctor sent me to a urologist who ordered up a battery of tests, including a PSA blood test, bone scan and biopsy. At age 59 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As with many men who have prostate cancer, there were no warning signs. I never thought I would come down with cancer”.
Tough Decisions Ahead
The news of my diagnosis was difficult to take. I handled it the way most men handled it. I didn’t want anybody to know about it. I was very upset. At the encouragement of my physician, I joined a support group outside Washington, DC so I wouldn’t have to face the process alone. I learned about different types of treatment options from other men who had firsthand knowledge. Back in the ’90′s, most men would say, “I want the cancer out of my body”. I wanted to pursue surgery and have my prostate removed. The doctor decided to go in and take a look but did not remove the prostate. The cancer had already spread outside the prostate gland. He suggested an external beam radiation treatment and elected to undergo 39 days of radiation, followed by a combination of hormonal therapies. The hormone treatment resulted in unwanted side effects such as weight gain and breast enlargement. Worst of all, I had to deal with hot flashes the same as any middle-aged woman, Despite its discomforts, the treatment plan was successful and has been in the clear for 20 plus years. For the first 8 years I asked for the PSA to be checked every quarter and now I get it checked every six months. It’s good to listen to your doctor, but you must have a say in treatment. It’s nerve-wracking to this day. I always wonder if my PSA test is still non-detectable.
“Let’s Talk About It”
Early in his cancer experience,took an active role in helping men cope with the disease, and raising awareness of it. When his support group facilitator left a year after Woody joined, Woody was asked to become the facilitator. He accepted the position because he felt it should be a survivor, rather than a nurse, who led the group. I also became active in the battle against prostate cancer. For 7 years, I served on the Education Committee of the Capital Area Prostate Cancer Network (CAPCAN). I have served on the American Cancer Society Regional Prostate Health Awareness Committee for 11 years. I was interviewed for a film called “Prostate Cancer: Are You at Risk?” featuring 3 men undergoing different treatments for prostate cancer. The film was a turning point for me because I spoke frankly about my experience. That helped me cope. I stayed on as the facilitator for this support group for almost 10 years, until I left the Washington area. In 2001, me and my wife, May, decided to move to Middletown, Delaware, where we now reside. After the move, I joined the Warriors Against Prostate Cancer at the Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. He is a volunteer who helps to educate men about prostate cancer. Woody says that helping other people has had a profound effect on him. He leads “Let’s Talk About It,” a program with the American Cancer Society that starts dialogue in the African-American community about why early testing is important. Because African-American men have a higher risk for prostate cancer than men of other races, American Cancer Society guidelines recommend they begin yearly screening with a PSA blood test and digital rectal exam at age 45. The same goes for men with a close relative (father, brother, son) diagnosed before age 65. For men at average risk, the Society recommends that doctors offer the tests after discussing the benefits and limitations of screening and allowing them to make an informed decision about whether to be tested, starting at age 50. “That’s the one thing I find very rewarding,” he says. “When you go into a group of men and you relate your story and how you survived, then they are very willing to talk about it.”
‘You Have to Listen’
I emphasize the need for communication and education. My mother didn’t understand the danger of not telling her children my father had prostate cancer, After talking with relatives, we found out that his two brothers, two of my mother’s brothers, and several first cousins also had prostate cancer. After my diagnosis, I changed my lifestyle dramatically. I removed fat from my diet and followed the “3 B’s”: bake, boil and broil. I worked my exercise regimen, taking swimming and water aerobics classes. I continue to take water aerobics with other seniors 3 days a week. Stress was reduced in my life by moving to Delaware. Our house looks out on a golf course, I took golf lessons years ago but I do not play today. It is very peaceful.The green reduces my stress level. I really enjoy spending time with family and friends. Surviving prostate cancer has changed my attitude on life. Under a military career, you’re macho, You can withstand anything. If you hurt a little bit, shake it off. Well, all of that’s changed. I am no longer that macho person. I’m a more compassionate person because of prostate cancer. I was used to giving orders. Now I’m not so much interested in giving orders as listening. And that’s a big part of being able to convince people to do something about it. You have to listen.
Note: As of March 21, 2013, at the age 81 years, my cancer is still non-detectable.
Prostate Cancer; A Personal Experience
In 1987 a gastroenterologist discovered a nodule on my prostate. At that time the PSA test was not in general use. I was 58 years old and my father had died of prostate cancer at age 71. A series of needle biopsies followed, the last of which was suspicious. An early version of the ultrasound guided biopsy revealed no cancer. About this time the PSA test became accepted and mine was followed every 6 months. The results hovered around 2 until 1996 when a 7.7 was returned. A six-month repeat showed a drop to 5.5. Another six-month result came back at 14.5.
The biopsy report showed a Gleason score of 9. Further tests showed that the cancer had left the capsule and gone to the seminal vesicles and the regional lymph nodes revealing a stage T3bN1MO cancer. Three second opinions later I chose the most aggressive treatment offered, an orchiectomy followed by 3D conformal external beam radiation ( IMRT was not yet in use) and a daily dose of Casodex. I tolerated the treatment well with only a couple of brief bouts of diarrhea and continued to bike about 50-75 miles per week. My PSA dropped soon to below 0.5 but after about a year it rose to 0.9 then to 1.5.
There was concern that the cancer was returning. Then the PSA began to decline, ultimately dropping to undetectable at 0.2 then at 0.1 where it has remained for about 13 years (over 16 years since diagnosis).
The physical side effects of the treatment have been nominal and manageable. Very minor urinary incontinence has appeared recently and has not been even a slight problem. Some radiation proctitus resulted in minor and very occasional rectal bleeding which was corrected by cauterization during a regularly scheduled colonoscopy. I still have occasional night sweats but these and the early-on hot flashes have diminished greatly over the years.
The initial emotional shock was traumatic given the high grade of the cancer. I despaired of seeing the Millennium but never stopped living each day to the fullest. I have come to enjoy a full and pleasant life and no longer think of prostate cancer as a sword over my head. Regular participation in 2 prostate cancer support groups has been a major factor in achieving my peace of mind.
I’ve come to realize that not all prostate cancer needs to be treated but when it does, for those like me at high risk, it is not a death sentence. It can be considered a chronic disease with the prospect of years of a good life, the quality of which can be enhanced by sharing one’s feelings and experiences with one’s peers.