Prostate Cancer: A family health issue

If you haven’t heard of Gary Degen, you should. He has a one-in-a-million story.

If you haven’t heard of Gary Degen, you should. He has a one-in-a-million story.

Degen garnered media attention when he won an NFL sweepstakes for tickets to Super Bowl XLVIII this past February. But that’s not what makes him one in a million. He won a much bigger challenge — the fight against very aggressive prostate cancer.

He is here to share his story thanks to being vigilant about his health. As a podiatrist, Degen understood the importance of preventive health screenings and began getting regular PSA prostate screenings at age 48, two years earlier than the recommended age. When he had his screening at age 50, it indicated abnormal cell growth.

A cancerous nodule was found on his prostate and he immediately underwent surgery to remove the prostate gland. But Degen’s PSA level continued to rise even after his prostate was removed. A scan revealed the cancer had spread to his spine, and he was given just 12 to 14 months to live.

He found this news unacceptable and sought a second opinion at Norton Cancer Institute, which has the TrueBeam STx radiation machine, one of the most advanced radiation systems available. Degen met with Aaron C. Spalding, M.D., Ph.D., radiation oncologist.

“I think we can nail this,” Degen recalls Dr. Spalding saying.

“Radiation therapy has been used for many years to eradicate tumors, but it also can kill surrounding healthy tissue,” Dr. Spalding said. “With the TrueBeam, we can give much more accurate, localized treatment, allowing us to give a higher dose and achieve a higher cure rate.”

Dr. Spalding gave Degen a 90 percent chance of controlling the spinal lesions — a nearly 180-degree departure from the grim news he received just weeks prior. Degen received one dose of radiation therapy with the TrueBeam in August 2013. Today, there is no evidence of cancer on his scans or PSA tests.

Though Degen’s road to becoming cancer-free has been harrowing, the message is simple: Know your risk factors and get screened.

“Over the years there’s been conflicting information about the need for PSA tests, but the fact is — they can save some lives,” said Patrick Williams, M.D., hematologist/oncologist. “It’s up to each individual, in conversation with his physician, to decide if he wants to undergo screenings or risk detection of cancer in a later stage.”

“It’s not just a men’s issue — if a man has female relatives who had breast or ovarian cancer, it increases his risk for prostate cancer,” Degen said. “Men must be aware of their family history — not just male, but female family members.”

Men should make an informed decision with their doctor about screening after learning about the uncertainties, risks and potential benefits. The American Cancer Society recommends beginning at age 50 for men with no symptoms of prostate cancer who are in relatively good health and can expect to live at least 10 more years. African-American men and men who have a father, brother or son diagnosed with prostate cancer before age 65 should begin those conversations at age 45. Men at higher risk — those with multiple family members affected by the disease before age 65 — should start even earlier, at age 40.

Degen says his boys will be tested beginning at age 35.

Men: If your own health isn’t motivation enough to get screened, then do it for your family. Degen’s youngest son, Isaiah, said it best: “Life is fragile. You can be here one day and gone the next. Appreciate what you have and [the time you have with] your family.”

Want to know your risk for prostate cancer? Take an online prostate cancer risk assessment

Advanced treatments for prostate cancer are available at Norton Cancer Institute

In addition to the latest in radiation therapy technology, Norton Cancer Institute also offers the following therapies:

  • Calypso, an implantable trackable beacon for prostate cancer irradiation. This can reduce the number of treatments from 44 to five in men with early-stage prostate cancer.
  • Xofigo, a newly approved therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer that is resistant to therapies that lower testosterone and has spread to the bones but not to other parts of the body. Xofigo is an injection administered once a month and has shown to be safe and reduce broken bones and death in patients with this type of prostate cancer.


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