William Shatner’s False Cancer Diagnosis
- Actor William Shatner was stunned by a prostate cancer diagnosis in 2016 which was later found to be a false positive.
- Prostate cancer, the most common form of cancer in men, can sometimes be falsely diagnosed based on results from a PSA test.
- Shatner’s advice to those going through diagnoses and other struggles: “Simply keep living, and try not to slow down.”
“I was told by a doctor I had a terminal disease,” he wrote in NBC Think, “that I was going to die.”Read More
In 2016, Shatner, then 85, and his wife Elizabeth, then 57, had decided to undergo genetic screening for cancer after reading about the practice in a magazine.
When he was told he had prostate cancer, he couldn’t believe it.
“There must be some mistake, I thought. This is what happens to other people.”
Further testing showed that Shatner’s levels of PSA – a marker of prostate cancer- were ten times higher than normal, indicating a very aggressive cancer.
“My initial reactions to the diagnosis were, I suppose, quite common: denial, fear, anger – as well as a dose of being insulted.”
Shatner’s terminal cancer diagnosis came as a huge shock to the actor, who spent the next three months pondering life and death in a way he never had before. His conclusion? He wasn’t going to accept his fate so easily.
“I am in my eighties; I have lived a long life, but I certainly wasn’t ready for it to end. I decided I wasn’t going gentle into that good night. I was going to fight,” Shatner went on to say in the NBC Think piece.
After learning that testosterone supplements might also raise PSA levels, he spoke with his doctor, who recommended testing again after he stopped taking them. His PSA levels soon dropped back to normal.
“I was thrilled to learn I did not have cancer. I’m back to not dying. At least right away.”
Since his misdiagnosis, Shatner has become a vocal advocate for cancer screening and education campaigns, recently lending his voice to the #CheckYerBawballs campaign to encourage men to check themselves for testicular cancer.
This year I'm changing #CheckYerBawballs to #CheckYourDreidels to help
raise awareness for testicular cancer &
the @CahonasScotland challege. I'm nominating @MrSamHoare (I don’t know him at all but how many times does one have a chance to say I nominate a Hoare?) & @PaulTelfer https://t.co/341rN7vm7X pic.twitter.com/7CcQFiPlyb
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) December 3, 2020
Prostate Cancer Screening
Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men. Fortunately, it can be easily detected, as it’s a relatively slow-growing cancer, via a combination of a rectal exam and PSA blood test.
This test measures the levels of PSA, a protein produced by the prostate, in a patient’s bloodstream. High levels of PSA could indicate prostate cancer, but may also be the product of external factors, like infection, inflammation, prostate swelling, or, in Shatner’s case, testosterone supplements.
“If a man has an elevated PSA, he has somewhere around a 20-40% chance of having prostate cancer,” Dr. James Brooks, chief of urologic oncology at Stanford Medicine, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview.
The PSA test is a point of contention amongst some oncologists, as false positives like Shatner’s could lead to over-diagnosis, which could lead to unneeded treatments that might cause damaging side effects, or unnecessary biopsies. Older patients like Shatner are also more likely to have an enlarged prostate, increasing the likelihood of false positives.
Ultimately, most oncologists believe that the PSA test accompanied by a rectal exam is the best way to detect cases of prostate cancer. Vigilance and thoroughness on your part can help ensure that you receive an accurate diagnosis and identify the best course of treatment.
Guidelines generally call for men to be screened for prostate cancer starting at age 55 and continuing up until 70. Those with high risk, like African-Americans and those with a family history of prostate cancer, should get tested sooner, with most experts saying screening should start at age 50 or even 40.
Shatner’s false diagnosis led him to a period of soul searching, a quest to find meaning in what he thought were the last months of his life.
“I spent considerable time thinking about my life, about the lessons I’ve learned, the places I’ve been, the miracles I’ve seen, all of those encounters and events and experiences that have been wrapped together into one great burst of energy called life.”
His conclusion? “Simply keep living, and try not to slow down.”
He acknowledged that everyone’s path to happiness and fulfillment after a cancer diagnosis is different, that no one piece of advice could possibly help everyone on the wide spectrum of humanity. All of us, Shatner said, are unique, and our journeys to find happiness and peace are intensely personal ones.
“When people come to me and ask for advice, assuming I must have learned something vitally important in my lifetime, I respond with the best possible advice: Don’t follow my advice.”