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TCL > January 2001 Issue > Three Chilling Words

January 2001       Vol. 30, No. 1       Page  19
CBA President's Message to Members

Three Chilling Words
by Dale R. Harris


"You have cancer."

These three words strike fear in millions of hearts every year. I heard them on March 15, 1999. I was in New York City interviewing witnesses when the message came to call my doctor. I had recently had a biopsy, but wasn’t particularly worried. After all, two doctors had looked at pre-biopsy tests and felt sure there was nothing to worry about. "Let’s just do the biopsy to be absolutely certain."

Yet there it was. There was no mistaking it. "You have cancer." Prostate cancer. The silent man-killer.

The doctor on the phone tried to assure me there was no urgency to get home to see him. It was a "Gleason six," he said—as if that meant something to me—and was slow growing and most probably had not spread beyond the prostate gland itself.1 "So just come see me when you get back in town." Sure thing, Doc. I cancelled everything and was on the next plane out of Newark.

It was a long ride home. Lots of emotions ran through my head. Toni. My girls. My law practice. I had just been confirmed as president-elect of the Colorado Bar Association. Would I have to give up something I so looked forward to doing? There was a lot of confusion that day. I cried some.

But, I got myself together and started "thinking like a lawyer," even with a life decision instead of a legal one. Talk to the doctor, I told myself, get all the books and articles you can find, learn about your options. And with prostate cancer, you do have options.

A Difficult Choice

I spent the next few weeks learning about the options—external beam radiation, implanted radioactive seeds ("brachytherapy," they call it), surgery ("radical prostatectomy" is pretty ominous sounding), hormones. There are other options, including doing nothing at all and waiting it out. Each option has its proponents, and you have to take lots of things into account in making a decision: statistical survival rates; likelihood of serious side effects, some which are not pleasant; age; Gleason scores, just to name a few.

But you do have to decide. I picked surgery after lots of back and forth. After considering names from leading hospitals around the country, I found the best surgeon in this area and decided I would rather be at home than in some strange place. I think I only made a firm and final decision on the day before surgery was scheduled. I told the doctor that if I didn’t show up the next morning, it was because I had changed my mind—again. I admit I was a little afraid. But, very early in the morning of my birthday in May last year, Toni and the girls and I checked in and we had it done. It wasn’t fun. But it was successful, and I am lucky and fortunate and, so far, eighteen months later, I have every reason to believe I am rid of the cancer.

Knowledge is Power

While my friends and many professional colleagues know about this experience, it has taken me a long time to decide to write about it. I thought it might appear to be a plea for sympathy, which it is not. I neither want nor need sympathy. I’m very fortunate. I’m cured and doing just great.

But I decided to write this column because I’m convinced we need to put prostate cancer much more in the spotlight. We need to give it the visibility that breast cancer has been given—many lives have been saved by the awareness brought about by "runs for the cure" and pink ribbon campaigns. Prostate cancer takes from 30,000 to 40,000 lives each year, but there is no organized campaign to make people aware of how to detect and treat it before it is too late.

Maybe it’s a "male thing" that keeps us from talking about it. Yet, so many men are afflicted with it. I now know many acquaintances—lawyers and non-lawyers—who received the news both before and after I did. And, of course, the list of famous men who have publicly acknowledged their fight with prostate cancer is unending: Mayor Webb, Senator Dole, Arnold Palmer, Joe Torre, Mayor Guiliani—just to name a few.

I decided to "go public" for the same reason they did—to raise the awareness of this disease among our male colleagues and those who love them. Awareness that there are simple tests that can help you detect it. Awareness that, if caught soon enough, it can be cured. Awareness that, while those three words—"you have cancer"—will shake you right down to your boots, they also can open your life to more richness and fullness as you get your priorities straightened out.

So please don’t put off getting tested. Go get your PSA checked, along with the regular manual exam. And do it regularly—every year—starting at least at age 40. Your chances for complete cure are so much greater if you catch this disease at its early stages. If just one person reads this article and decides to get the tests now, I will be glad I wrote it.

And if—God forbid—you hear those three chilling words, I’m willing to talk with you. It meant a lot to me to know that I wasn’t alone. Others had been there and were willing to share. I will do the same.


1. A Gleason score is a way to classify the grade of cancer, based on how the cells look under a microscope. A low score is good; a high score, not so good. A six is in the rather murky mid-range.

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