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My personal cancer survivor story and how early detection saved my life

‘Getting tested might put you in a brief moment of discomfort. Not getting tested could lead to a slow, painful death.’

ESPN’s 2022 V Week runs through Dec. 11. During the fundraiser for cancer research, Andscape is resurfacing previously written articles and telling stories about early detection, clinical trial studies, and research in minority communities. ESPN hopes to raise funds and awareness about the important cause championed by our friend, coach Jim Valvano. One hundred percent of all cash donations go directly to cancer research. Donate here today.

This past summer a friend used his social media account to share news of a pending colonoscopy. He made comments about being afraid. He shared a video of a scene from a comedy film that made light of a patient getting an invasive digital prostate exam. He even joked about how the procedure would leave him feeling violated.

While reading this back-and-forth, I’d finally had enough.

“Stop it,” I wrote, explaining that people might take his words seriously enough that they would avoid a procedure that might save their life.

I can speak to those lifesaving procedures firsthand. Five years ago I underwent a series of tests that revealed that I had prostate cancer that, over a two-year period, had become very aggressive. On this, the 30th annual National Cancer Survivors Day, I can honestly say that if I had been afraid to take a digital rectal exam that many men — like my friend — fear, it’s unlikely I’d be here today to share my story.

An exaggeration? Hardly. I’ve witnessed the horrific way cancer takes you out.

The first time cancer affected my immediate family was in 1993 when my mother died after a two-year battle with melanoma. The skin cancer wasn’t detected early, and those deadly cells metastasized through her entire body, leaving her bones brittle. She was 56 when she died.

Cancer struck again about 15 years later when my brother was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His wasn’t caught early, and on the night he died he struggled through his last breaths as our family watched helplessly at his hospital bedside. My brother and mother left behind sisters, brothers, a spouse, children and grandkids. To this day, we all continue to struggle with our loss.

I am thankful to be a survivor. And I’m still alive today — more than five years after my radical prostatectomy procedure, which removed my prostate — because of the preventive tests. It’s because of those tests that death rates in 11 of the 16 common cancers for men and 13 of the 18 common cancers for women have been lowered.

My survival story? I was 49, without a health scare or care in the world. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind, even though my doctors had included a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test each year I had a physical.

My brother losing his battle with prostate cancer in 2010 shook me. And then, the very next year, my brother-in-law was diagnosed with prostate cancer, leading to his surgery.

Two people affected by cancer in a short period of time hit close to home. I started to do some research and found that 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. If you’re black, the group with the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world, those odds increase to 1 in 5.

At that time I realized I had been two years between tests. I immediately scheduled a PSA and found that my levels had doubled in two years. A second blood test revealed the same results, and the biopsy several months later revealed an aggressive cancer in my prostate.

The next six months were tough. I endured a series of uncomfortable tests. Later, my scheduled surgery was delayed because of a lesion found on my rib cage. The fear? The cancer had already spread, which would have made my surgery unnecessary. Fortunately another biopsy, my third, revealed the lesion wasn’t cancerous.

In July 2012 I had my prostate removed. Two weeks later, I started a new job.

My cancer was caught early. The key word is “caught” because it would have never been detected had I not undergone the many preventive procedures in place that save lives. Early detection of prostate cancer results in survival rates that exceed 95 percent.

I feel blessed to be alive. If my brother-in-law hadn’t been diagnosed the year after my brother’s death, there’s a chance that I may not have gone for a screening. Going an extra year without a screening may have been, for me, the difference between life and death.

Honestly, I had never heard of National Cancer Survivors Day until I was assigned this story. That might be because I celebrate being a survivor every single day.

Early detection is key. Early detection is harmless. Early detection saves lives.

Getting tested might put you in a brief moment of discomfort. Not getting tested could lead to a slow, painful death.

Which would you choose?

My choice, based on what I’ve witnessed, was easy.

More funding means more research. More research means more lives saved. Join our campaign to raise $200 million by 2020. You can contribute by visiting this link: www.jimmyv.org/stuartscott.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.