The commitment to protect the health of other people has guided my career for decades, whether training Air Force pilots to avoid hypoxia or NASA astronauts to survive in pressurized space capsules.
In fact, I just celebrated my 50 years at NASA – and still counting. My team and I have worked on every major space exploration program since Apollo. When Apollo 13’s oxygen tank exploded, my team and I spent more than 20 straight hours making the repairs to bring the astronauts home safely.
Before my current job, I operated the Altitude Chamber where we tested astronauts’ exertion levels, endurance and safety by simulating the pressure they would feel from the weight of their space suits or walking around or gripping tools, both inside and outside the space cabin.
Today I work in the electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility (EMI/EMC) Test Facility. I check on the health and safety of all kinds of crew, flight and ground equipment, including communication, instrumentation, navigation, computation and robotics.
With that background, I could hardly ignore the need to protect my own health.
So when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017, I knew I’d have to take steps to stay well for the long-term – not only to continue my work as a safety engineer at NASA, but also to keep playing golf with my buddies on courses from Scotland to Palm Springs. In hindsight, that advice may have saved my life because, as I eventually learned, African-American men like me are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer as Caucasian men.
Because my years in the Air Force included going into reduced gravity situations, I was used to getting physicals every year, and I always pay attention to my medical status. About 20 years ago, I started getting the PSA test, which is the prostate-specific antigen test for monitoring potential disease in the prostate. In early 2017, my PSA level had reached 5 and I was advised to see a urologist.
Unfortunately I did receive a prostate cancer diagnosis, but it was in the early stages so I had a few medical options.
I could simply do nothing and undergo active surveillance – more commonly called “watchful waiting” – where my doctor and I would keep tabs on the slow-growing progress of the cancer. That choice might work for some patients. But I was told if I didn’t do anything I’d likely live another 10 years, and even though I’m now 74, I have more life to live than that!
Another option I considered was a radical prostatectomy, where the entire prostate gland is removed by a surgeon. After that surgery however, my urologist told me it could take up to two years for urinary and sexual function to return, or they might not return at all. Incontinence and impotence are the two common side effects of this procedure. Radical surgery did not seem like the right choice for me.
My urologist also told me I could get radiation, but the long-term side effects were similar to what I’d face with a prostatectomy.
Then, one of my friends from the gym let me know 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.
My urologist had reservations about HIFU, but with my public health background, I decided to look at the numbers and get a second opinion. A friend of mine had heard that Dr. Brian Miles at Houston Methodist Hospital was one of the top urologists in the U.S. and was also an oncologist. After checking Dr. Miles’ credentials, I made an appointment to see him.
At the time, I didn’t know Dr. Miles performed the HIFU procedure. He confirmed the diagnosis– and also verified that I was a candidate for HIFU. I liked the idea of this non-invasive option, and the relatively short down time as well as the potential for a positive return to normal urological function. I was also elated that I could get the procedure in Houston and would not have to travel out of the country for it.
I had the procedure a week before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in late August of 2017, and it only took about an hour-and-a-half. I was back home the same day. Luckily I did not have to evacuate and nothing was moving for weeks anyway. I returned to work on September 11, 2017.
As Dr. Miles told me before the procedure, I had to wear a catheter for a short period due to swelling in my prostate. And that generally occurs after the HIFU treatment. However, the catheter was eventually removed and I graduated to wearing a pad for occasional incontinence. Today, I don’t even need that because incontinence is no longer a problem.
I’m very glad I chose the HIFU option. I’m also grateful for all of the dedicated people who were by my side, including my family and friends.
I consider myself lucky because I was diligent about receiving my annual physical, and I feel honored to share my challenge with prostate cancer.
My advice to other men – especially African American men who are at even greater risk — is to find a physician you trust and heed the professional advice you are given. I hope in some small way I can encourage someone else, who may be reluctant, to get the necessary treatment to become a prostate cancer survivor, with the help of my doctors and HIFU!