Dan Zenka, VP of Communication for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, is a Stage IV prostate cancer patient and writes the "My New York Minute" blog.
Our interview about prostate cancer is half over before Dan Zenka tells me about his own diagnosis. And when he does, it’s not a very dramatic revelation.
“When I was diagnosed … ,” he says, and goes right back to telling me about the work of the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), where he is VP of Communication. He had worked at PCF, a global organization and leading funder of prostate cancer research, for two years when he got his diagnosis in April. And he’s now more passionate than ever about spreading the word about this disease.
There were 218,000 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed in the U.S. last year, and 32,000 deaths. And 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed in their lifetime. “Prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women,” Zenka tells me. And advocacy groups like PCF face some challenges.
First, the cause hasn’t attracted the community that breast cancer has. “No one wants to put on pink sneakers and T-shirts and run around a track for us,” Zenka says. And unlike women, who will visit their doctor, ask friends and relatives and join support groups, men aren’t eager to seek out or share information about such a sensitive topic.
Online communities, though, are changing the landscape. Zenka’s blog, “My New York Minute,” which he started after his diagnosis in April 2010, has had more than 10,000 hits. There are comments on his posts, but he hears more from men via direct email (he gets between two and eight a day), where he fields a range of questions from guys who don’t want to “look someone in the eye and discuss what’s going on down there.”
For men who do seek it out, prostate cancer screening isn’t a simple affair. The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, the first step in the process, has generated a fair amount of controversy because of speculation it can lead to overdiagnosis. But Zenka says the PSA test is misunderstood. “It is not a cancer test. It is a smoke alarm for the prostate,” he explains. It can be an indicator that something is going on with the prostate, but a full diagnosis requires a digital rectal exam and possibly a biopsy.
And once a diagnosis is made, the treatment path isn’t necessarily clear. PCF-funded research has identified 24 sub-types of prostate cancer – some not life-threatening, some highly aggressive. But doctors aren’t yet able to identify how aggressive a patient’s prostate cancer is when it is first diagnosed. So it is difficult to tell which men might need surgery, and which might be fine with “watchful waiting.”
Zenka himself had prostate surgery in June, and radiation treatment in November and December. And some facets of his treatment were informed by research he learned about through PCF, research available to anyone who visits the organization’s website. The site also has information for men at any stage of the process, from screening to diagnosis to the latest treatments. The organization even funds, and can connect patients with, clinical trials. And as technology advances, PCF.org will likely be one of the first sources of information. “We want to get to the point where we cure more and overtreat less,” Zenka says.
Meanwhile, men in their 20s can pay attention to diet, exercise and family history, and men over 40 can find a doctor they trust to help them develop a proactive prostate care plan. And the women who love them can help make sure that happens. It’s a deadly (but highly treatable if caught early) disease. It’s worth the effort. As Zenka likes to say, “Ladies, check your prostates!”
Visit the Prostate Cancer Foundation online …
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