Ken Hayward is living proof that regularly seeing a doctor and staying on top of screening tests can save lives.
Hayward, vice president and special assistant to the president for Community Relations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, went through a health scare with prostate cancer eight years ago. Ever since, he’s made a point to share a message of awareness on personal health advocacy.
“I simply want people to know that you advocate for your own health,” Hayward said. “I feel very lucky that my diagnosis was detected. If I hadn’t advocated for myself, it wouldn’t have been. I firmly believe that catching it early is the reason I’m here and healthy today.”
A silent cancer
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men, after skin cancer. The prostate is a gland in men’s reproductive systems that surrounds the urethra. Often, the early stages of prostate cancer carry no symptoms. When men do have symptoms, they can include problems urinating, frequent urination, blood in urine or semen, or frequent pain or stiffness in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs – which are often signs of more advanced disease.
For Hayward, he never experienced symptoms; but he knew that as he was getting older, it was time to start paying attention to his prostate health. At his annual physical when he turned 51, Hayward asked his doctor if he should get his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level checked.
A PSA test is a blood test to measure the level of PSA in the blood. Men with higher levels of PSA may have prostate cancer. Higher levels of PSA may also occur in men with a prostate that is infected, inflamed or enlarged.
Hayward’s doctor added the PSA test to the panel of blood tests that Hayward was already having done as a part of his annual physical. One year later at his next annual physical, Hayward had the same blood test done – and his doctor noticed Hayward’s PSA level had risen.
“You have to have a baseline,” Hayward said. “The fact that I did (have a baseline PSA level) alerted the doctor that maybe something was going on.”
Hayward was quickly referred to a urologist for further evaluation. Three weeks later, a biopsy result felt like a “slap in the face” to Hayward: he had form of fast-growing prostate cancer.
“When you get a call from a doctor and someone says you have cancer, your immediate reaction is – once you get over the shock of it – it takes a minute to wrap your head around it. What are the next steps, what should you do?” Hayward said. “Wrapping your head around a diagnosis like that is not an easy thing. It challenges you mentally and physically to make sure you have a good attitude to address it head on and decide what treatment option is best for you.”
Hayward opted for surgery, which ultimately was successful enough that he didn’t need radiation treatment. He credits his continued health since that time eight years ago with the early detection and swift treatment of his prostate cancer.
Now, Hayward makes sure to encourage those around him to get their PSA levels checked for prostate cancer.
‘Nothing to be ashamed of’
One in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetimes.
Health experts say men should begin receiving yearly prostate exams at age 50 as part of an annual physical. However, some men may benefit from receiving the screening at age 40 or 45, depending on their risk factors, such as a family history of prostate cancer. A PSA test is one of several screening tests for prostate cancer. A digital rectal exam can also be used.
Prostate cancer can be a deeply personal topic – and some men don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Hayward said he’s willing to share his journey because of his experience with prostate cancer – and how he’s seen it affect family members and friends. His biggest message to men: get your PSA level checked in your next blood test.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to be afraid of,” Hayward said. “It’s like a lot of things – keeping track of your blood pressure, your cholesterol and your blood sugar. It’s one of those things – where you reach an age, you keep track of it.”
Photo credit: BCBSM