For Derrick A. Butts, prostate cancer wasn’t a matter of “if”—it was a matter of “when.”
Butts is the president and co-founder of Prostate Cancer Awareness Alliance – DMV. This non-profit works to promote prostate cancer awareness and connect people in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) to the network of screening and treatment resources available to them.Read More
At first, though, prostate cancer wasn’t such an open topic of discussion. Butts didn’t learn about his grandfather’s condition until after he passed away from colon cancer. His father also initially kept his battle private. “I didn’t find about my father’s cancer or his treatment until almost 30 days after the fact.” But when Butts’ father did open up to him, he had one important message he wanted to drive home: “Get your numbers checked. Know your numbers.”
A change in urinary habits could be an indicator of prostate cancer, but it could also be due to a handful of other issues.
Butts was 38-years-old when he started getting his prostate checked. In 2015, he realized that he had a problem. His PSA numbers began increasing rapidly.
“When I first was realizing that something was going on, my PSA levels had jumped one point,” he said. “By the time I got to the second opinion, they had jumped from 4.32 to 5.68. By the time I had the cancer removed, it was at 7.62. That was between August 2015 and April 2016.”
Butts had an aggressive case, and his prostate cancer had reached stage 3B by the time it was treated, meaning that the cancer was still contained within the gland, but had moved into the seminal vesicle.
When Butts got the call from his doctor that he had cancer, he was ready. He had been preparing to confront this issue for years.
They asked him to come in for a consultation, but he declined.
“I didn’t need to discuss my options,” he said. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to have it removed.”
Deciding on Surgery
Butts lives an active lifestyle. He’s a cyclist, biking 50 to 75 miles a week, he travels, and he teaches martial arts. He knew he didn’t want to be limited by having to continue to monitor his prostate.
“I didn’t want something like cancer to slow me down. The best thing for me and my family was just to remove it and not have to worry about it beyond annual checkups,” he said.
The technology for prostate surgery has improved dramatically since his father’s time. Now, robotics allows doctors to operate with precision, preserving vessels and nerves in the prostate area. Radiation treatment has also become significantly more accurate, with less risk of affecting surrounding organs. When Butts went in for surgery, they removed the prostate, the seminal vesicle, and some lymph nodes to make sure they had gotten it all.
“My process was very clean,” he said. “Everything was functioning about a week after my procedure. I had no lasting side effects.”
Deciding between radiation and surgery to treat prostate cancer is a very personal decision, no matter what your doctor is recommending.
It was at this time that Butts started to think about how he could use his experience to help educate others. When Butts was in the hospital, his father told him he had started writing a book about his experience as a prostate cancer survivor. Butts committed to chronicling his experiences so he could write the second half of the book, which was ultimately published as Prostate Cancer: A Family Affair.
Starting the PCAA-DMV
Butts started the Prostate Cancer Awareness Alliance (PCAA) – DMV with the mission of spreading awareness and resources to encourage men to be proactive about their prostate health. Butts had no symptoms from his own cancer and his case was aggressive, so if he hadn’t been monitoring his PSA numbers proactively, he would have had no way of knowing that his health was in danger. He wants to let men know, “You really need to go get checked. You really need to know your family history. You really need to know your numbers. And that’s not just your PSA numbers. It’s all your numbers—cholesterol, diabetes, heart rate. All those things are important. And you need to advocate for yourself.”
The PCAA-DMV is committed to addressing healthcare inequities through community outreach, and by making people aware of the treatment services available in their area.
“If you get prostate cancer, knowing where to go is half the battle,” said Butts. “We’re trying to collectively gather all the information for our particular geographic region, and say, ‘These are the possible screening sites for prostate cancer, these are the possible treatment services, and these are places where you can potentially get involved in a clinical trial or study.’”
By partnering with other prostate cancer treatment centers in the DMV area, the PCAA-DMV aims to let men know that if you get prostate cancer and you can catch it early, you are going to have more options. There is life after prostate cancer.
When it comes to prostate cancer, African-American men tend to have higher incidences and more aggressive cancers than white men.
Key Details About Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer begins in the walnut-shaped gland between the rectum and the bladder, and it is the most common cancer in men. Age and race are two of the main risk factors for prostate cancer, with the disease occurring most frequently in older men and in non-Hispanic Black men. Different patients can experience prostate cancer very differently–in some cases, the condition is slow growing and may not even require treatment. In others, prostate cancer can grow quickly and aggressively.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Edwin Posadas of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said, “Prostate cancer is a very odd disease in that it doesn’t have a particular symptom.” Changes in urinary function and behavior are some of the most common signs of the disease, although they can also point to other conditions. It is important not to wait for prostate cancer symptoms before starting to screen for the disease.
Screening for prostate cancer generally involves a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test and a digital rectal exam. A prostate specific antigen (PSA) test is a blood test that measures for a substance created by the prostate that is typically higher in men with prostate cancer. There are, however, other reasons that someone might have an elevated PSA level. Age, race, individual variation, and other prostate conditions can all affect PSA levels.
A second test that is sometimes used for prostate cancer screening is a digital rectal exam (DRE), where a doctor feels for a cancerous mass in the prostate manually. This exam may be uncomfortable, but it is brief—it shouldn’t last for more than a minute. Based on the results of your PSA and DRE, your doctor may recommend additional testing including a biopsy or imaging such as a prostate MRI.