I’ve had the honor of working for NASA in Houston for more than 50 years – and I’m still going strong. My team and I have worked on every major space exploration program since Apollo, making sure our astronauts could withstand the physical challenges of space travel. During the Apollo 13 mission, when the spaceship’s oxygen tank exploded, my team and I worked 20 straight hours making the repairs to bring the astronauts back home safely.
Day to day, I operate the space center’s altitude chambers, where we help astronauts survive in pressurized space capsules by testing their exertion and endurance. We keep the astronauts safe and healthy for their flights into space.
Before joining NASA, I earned my master’s degree in public health from the University of Texas and was in the Air Force. Routine physicals were part of my job in the Air Force, as I spent those years going into reduced gravity situations that put me at risk for hypoxia. Since then, annual checkups have become a healthy habit.
While I wasn’t thrilled with the news when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I was thankful I hadn’t neglected my annual PSA tests, especially since African-American men like me are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer as Caucasian men. As a result of having regular PSA tests, my prostate cancer was detected early and had not spread outside my prostate, which made it very treatable. My doctor and I would now be discussing my treatment plan options.
Having helped facilitate many space explorations over the years, it was now time to do my own exploration and find out as much as possible so I could make the right decision about treatment. I didn’t waste any time. I’m in my mid 70’s and I have a lot more living to do! Not only am I continuing my work at NASA, I plan to continue traveling and playing golf with my buddies on courses from Scotland, to the Dominican Republic, to Palm Springs.
When I spoke with my doctor about options, he shared three basic treatment plans.
- I could simply do nothing and undergo active surveillance – more commonly called “watchful waiting” – where the doctor and I would keep tabs on the slow-growing progress of the cancer. But, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having cancer and not treating it.
- Another option was radical prostatectomy, where the entire prostate gland is removed by a surgeon. The urologist told me that after surgery however, there could be negative side effects such as incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Radical surgery did not seem like the right choice for me.
- I could also get radiation, but the long-term side effects were similar to what I might face with a prostatectomy. I really didn’t feel any of these treatments were the best option for me.
Then, one of my friends from the gym told me he’d seen an ad about a procedure called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound, or HIFU. With HIFU, the doctor directs high-frequency sound waves to heat up and burn off diseased tissue in the prostate using an ultrasound probe. I don’t know how comfortable I felt hearing him say, ‘burning off diseased tissue’, but I appreciated hearing I may have another choice.
My urologist was uncertain about HIFU, but with my public health background, I decided to look at the data and get a second opinion. A friend of mine heard that a Houston-area urologist was performing this procedure, so I made an appointment to see him.
I headed to Houston Methodist and met with Dr. Brian Miles who confirmed the diagnosis and also verified that I was a candidate for HIFU. Good news! But with the good, comes the bad. I also found out that it would not be covered by my insurance** and I would have to pay for the treatment out of pocket, about $25,000. Not any easy decision to make.
That took a bit of time to digest, but I realized I liked the idea of this non-invasive option. The positives mentioned were that there would be a relatively short down time and that there was very good potential for a positive return to normal urological and sexual function. Adding in the fact that the procedure would be done in Houston, requiring no real travel on my part, helped me decide that HIFU was right for me and worth the expense.
Before the procedure, I was given a rundown of what to expect after the procedure, which included wearing a catheter for some time. Fortunately for me, the catheter was removed within a week and I graduated to wearing a pad for temporary incontinence. Today, I have no incontinence problems.
Some have asked me why I would choose to share my personal cancer journey with strangers, but through my life, whenever something big has happened to me, I have shared it with others. I’m not afraid to let people know, because I realize that someone who may have had a similar experience may help me, or possibly I could help others.
My advice to other men – especially African American men who are at greater risk — is to first, stay on top of their physicals and PSA scores. Second, find a physician they trust and heed their professional advice. If you ever hear the words, “You have prostate cancer”, know that there are many treatment options, even those that may not be covered by insurance. But it’s important to have as much knowledge as possible, so that you are confident you’ve made the best decision for yourself and loved ones.
(** Medicare and Insurance coverage of HIFU is constantly evolving so the out-of-pocket expense may be less.)