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Jeff Gilhooly talks about his battle with prostate cancer

It was Wednesday, April 13, another fairly typical day on the CBC Radio Morning Show. Then host Jeff Gilhooly dropped a bombshell.

This, essentially, is what he said, and I am paraphrasing here:

“I have been negotiating with management here about my retirement, and it looked like I might be leaving in September of this year. But then, I received some personal news that means I will have to leave the program for a while, as I have come down with a diagnosis of prostate cancer. I have chosen to treat it surgically, and the best guess is that I will be off work for six to eight weeks. In the meantime, John Furlong will step in as host, in my absence.”

It was a short message – powerful, emotional, but delivered with dignity and quiet strength. 

I immediately sent Jeff a note, asking if he’d be willing to do an interview about it, or even offer a brief statement. “You have become the voice of the Morning Show, and people have come to think of you almost as a personal friend,” I wrote. “They care about you.”

Jeff understood my interest, but he politely declined until after the surgery was complete, so that he could talk more definitively about his prognosis.

That day has come.

And the news is good. Jeff Gilhooly is feeling much better, thank you very much. In a wide-ranging interview, Jeff talked frankly and in considerable detail about his battle with prostate cancer. 

 

It all started in December of last year, when Jeff received the results of his yearly physical exam. “I was feeling great,” he said. “My blood pressure, cholesterol, everything was perfect. My GP said ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, except for one little thing: Your PSA has doubled.’”

PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigen, Jeff explained. It’s a substance that is secreted by the prostate gland by both normal cells and diseased cells in the prostate. “Everybody has a PSA level, even if you’re perfectly healthy, but as diseased or cancerous cells begin to multiply, the level of PSA will rise in your blood.”

Jeff’s PSA level went from a normal range of 3 two years ago to a startling high of 8.5 in the latest test.

“In most cases, that is a clear indicator that you’ve got something going on and need a biopsy,” Jeff explained. An appointment was booked with the urologist, who suspected a tumour, and a biopsy was scheduled for when Jeff returned in February from a vacation in Italy.

“The biopsy took a long time to get the results, it just does – it was three to four weeks. And then he gave me the news: yup, definitely a tumour and it was quite far advanced. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I said, ‘Where do we go from here?’ He said, ‘It’s homework time for you.’ He laid out the various treatment options that were available for me, and we were in. So I kind of accepted it. What other choice did I have?”

Jeff said he was astounded by the range of treatment options available.

“It depends on how far advanced the cancer is,” he said. “There seems to be half a dozen different kinds of radiation treatments, everything from implanting radiated seeds in your prostate to 3D radiation to beam radiation – a whole bunch of stuff – and each one is a viable treatment depending on the stage of the tumour and the person’s individual preference. But the more I investigated, the more I felt comfortable just getting it out and taken care of, once and for all. And as it turns out, I think that was a good choice, because the disease was pretty far advanced. There are four stages and I was a well-advanced stage three and very fortunate that nothing had metastasized.”

There was another important hurdle to clear after the operation, Jeff explained.

“After surgery, you wait six weeks, then get a blood test to measure your PSA level. It has to go right down to zero. In January, my PSA level was 8.5. I got the results of my latest test on Tuesday, and the PSA level was down to .008. But it’s still not perfect. Even as miniscule as that is, we have to get it down to zero. It has to be gone.”

The prognosis? Jeff has to wait another three weeks before taking another blood test, to see if the PSA has fallen to zero. If it does, he gets a clean bill of health. If not, he will need to undergo radiation therapy to clear it up. Considering how things might have gone, his outlook is extremely good.

“I feel good,” he said. “I can get exercising again, working out and lifting weights. Up to Tuesday, the most I was supposed to lift was five pounds. I couldn’t even take the garbage out. Now I’m back in the garden, and working out again. And all that’s good, but it’s a frustrating and slow recovery process, because you’ve got both the impact of the surgery, which is invasive, and then you’ve got the aftermath of still dealing with the after-effects of the prostate cancer and the PSA. There’s a couple of minor things. It’s difficult to get your bladder back to working the way it was. And I’m seeing quite a bit of results that way, but it’s a slow process… you have to do Kegel exercises. Those things are slow to get back to normal but I’m recovered now, finally.”

Jeff allowed that outcomes might easily have been very different.

“If we didn’t catch this and get at it when we did, it could have been a lot worse. The urologist said it was a very slow growing cancer, comparative to others. At the stage I was at, another three to six months and I could have been in much more difficulty. There’s a good probability that the cancer would have spread beyond the prostate.”

After going public with his diagnosis, Jeff said there was an outpouring of support, expressed through calls, emails and cards. He also became acutely aware of the seriousness of the prostate cancer problem.

“It’s hard to know if cancer rates are increasing, or if it’s because we are looking for it more and have found new ways of detecting it,” he said. “But incidences of prostate cancer are certainly growing. According to statistics from the Canadian Prostate Cancer Network, 26.9 percent of all new male cancer diagnoses are prostate cancer, 15.7 percent are lung and 13.9 percent are colorectal. So it has really exploded… It has emerged as one of the most common kinds of cancer in middle-aged men. And I was blown away by the number of people who have come forward, since I pretty much had to go public with mine, to tell me that it’s happened to them or their brother or uncle. It’s just extraordinary.”

Jeff said he has done awareness-raising interviews in the past about prostate cancer.

“But obviously those stories were not from the same perspective that I have now. And those stories certainly don’t resonate in the same way if they are happening to you, or someone close to you. And I do feel an obligation to talk publicly about this. It just seems to me that (a prostate check) should be as much a part of a physical as having your blood pressure checked. I know the prostate gland is considered a sexual organ… but really, it’s just another part of the body. Any why flirt with that kind of danger? Think about the people who depend on you.”

Finally, Jeff said the blood test was critical to finding his cancer in time to make a difference. 

“They didn’t catch the cancer with the physical examination, but we picked it up in the PSA test,” Jeff said. “It’s certainly important to have the digital exam, but the PSA is another effective tool that was very important in my case.”

In other words, men who dread the rubber glove treatment – and their numbers are legion – should note that the blood test is perhaps less intrusive, and, if anything, more accurate. If you’re a middle-aged male who has never taken this test, what are you waiting for?

Coming next, in part 2, Jeff talks about his impending retirement from the CBC.

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