Shooting for the Stars after a Cancer Misdiagnosis
- Star Trek actor William Shatner is headed to space on Oct. 12 as a part of Jeff Bezos’ latest launch with his aerospace manufacturing company, Blue Origin.
- William Shatner was shocked by a prostate cancer diagnosis in 2016, which later turned out to be a misdiagnosis. The experience changed his outlook on life and convinced him that he never wanted to slow down.
- Prostate cancer, the most common form of cancer in men, can sometimes be misdiagnosed based on results from a PSA test. Still, our experts maintain that the PSA tests are helpful, and you should talk with your doctor about your own risks for the cancer and screening options.
But forget the Starship Enterprise. This time, he hopped aboard Jeff Bezos’ launch vehicle, New Shepard, as a part of Blue Origin’s newest mission with Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, and crewmates Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries.Read More
“I’ve heard about space for a long time now,” Shatner said before the launch. “I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself. What a miracle.”
Soaring to space ought to give a person greater perspective, but it was a cancer misdiagnosis that truly changed the way Shatner looked at life.
“I have wandered aimlessly trying to comprehend death, realizing I could never understand it. But in 2016 I had an entirely different encounter with death,” he wrote for NBC. “I was told by a doctor I had a terminal disease. That I was going to die.”
In 2016, an 85-year-old Shatner and his then-wife Elizabeth decided to undergo “an extremely sensitive test” that looks for a cancer-related protein after reading about the practice in a magazine. That’s when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“My regular doctor explained that prostate cancer sometimes is very aggressive and sometimes is so benign you’ll die of something else long before it kills you,” he wrote. “Kills me? That couldn’t be happening. To find out which type it was, he took my PSA, a marker for this disease. Until then it had been at one or two, well within safe limits. ‘It’s ten,’ he reported. ‘That is an aggressive cancer.’ Ten! My body had betrayed me.”
But his body, in fact, had not. After reading that testosterone supplements could affect his results, he decided to stop taking the supplements – per his doctor’s request.
“Three months later I took another PSA test. It had gone down to one. One,” he wrote. “The doctor guessed that the testosterone had resulted in the elevated PSA level. I didn’t bother taking the sensitive test. As the cancer specialists explained to Elizabeth and me, we get cancer cells all the time and usually your body eats them up. Your killer cells, T-cells, attack and destroy them. The body gets cancer all the time and eliminates it, but that test is so sensitive it picked up the hint of it and combined with the PSA reading convinced me I was dying.”
T cells are a part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. So, while it’s uncertain exactly why his first test came back positive for prostate cancer, it is accurate to say that T cells may help fight off cancerous cells if they arrive.
Needless to say, Shatner’s misdiagnosis left him with a lot more than a cancer scare.
“During those three months I was living with my death sentence, 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,” he wrote. “And based on that I want to share with you, for the first time, my secret to live a good, long life: Don’t die. That’s it; that’s the secret. Simply keep living and try not to slow down.”
And slowing down is the farthest from Shatner’s reality. The ship blasted off over the West Texas Desert and safely parachuted back to Earth on Oct. 12. The journey took about 10 minutes, but they were 10 minutes Shatner will likely never forget.
“What you have given me is the most profound experience,” Shatner told Bezos after exiting the vehicle. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”
If you missed Shatner’s daring reach for the stars – pun intended – head to BlueOrigin.com to see the replay of the launch.
Understanding Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. About one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. The disease begins in the walnut-shaped prostate gland located between the rectum and bladder. This gland produces the fluid that nourishes sperm.
Symptoms of the disease are inconsistent and hard to pinpoint.
“Prostate cancer is a very odd disease in that it doesn’t have a particular symptom,” Dr. Edwin Posadas, director of translational oncology and the medical director of the Urologic Oncology Program at Cedars-Sinai, explained. But changes in urinary function like urinating more or less often or waking up at night to go more than usual could be a sign of the disease. However, it’s important to note that these potential symptoms could also could be caused by a urinary tract infection or even an enlargement of the prostate gland (which is not cancer).
Doctors that have spoken with SurvivorNet shared a hopeful outlook when considering a prostate cancer diagnosis because there are many treatment options, and there’s been significant treatment progress over the past decade. Surgical and radiation options, for example, have made improvements in reducing side effects of treatment while still providing excellent cure rates. Even for men with an advanced-stage diagnosis, many new options exist to treat prostate cancer and help them maintain an excellent quality of life.
Prostate Cancer Screening
Despite Shatner’s misdiagnosis, prostate cancer screenings should not be skipped. Instead, Shatner’s experience can be used as a lesson in clear communication with your doctor. You should always share every medication or supplement you’re taking – including testosterone pills.
In the United States, many prostate cancer cases are caught with screening examinations. Screening guidelines depend on your risk for the disease. Age, race/ethnicity, geography, family history and gene changes are the main risk factors for prostate cancer. You should talk with your doctor regardless, but here are some things to consider when gauging your risk for the disease:
- Men younger than 40 are less likely to get prostate cancer, but age-related risk quickly rises after age 50. Approximately six of ten cases of prostate cancer are found in men older than 65.
- Prostate cancer develops more often in African-American men and in Caribbean men of African ancestry than in men of other races, and these men tend to develop the disease at a younger age.
- Prostate cancer is most common in North America, northwestern Europe, Australia and on Caribbean islands. It is less common in Asia, Africa, Central America and South America. The reasons for this risk factor are unclear, but more intensive screening and lifestyle differences like diet might be contributing factors.
- Most prostate cancers occur in men without a family history of the disease, but it’s still important to look at your family history because prostate cancer does seem to run in some families. Having a father or brother with prostate cancer, for instance, more than doubles a man’s risk of developing the disease with a higher risk for men with a brother with prostate cancer than those with a father who have it. The risk is also especially high if a man has several affected relatives that developed the cancer at a younger age.
- Inherited gene changes, or mutations, like that of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes can also elevate risk, but this probably accounts for a small percentage of overall cases.
It’s not clear if the benefits of prostate cancer screening outweigh the risks for most men. Nevertheless, screening can be life-saving, and it’s important to at least discuss the pros and cons of screening and your risk factors for the disease with your doctor.
Prostate cancer screening methods look for possible signs of the disease, but they can’t determine for sure if you have cancer. The only way to know for sure if the patient has prostate cancer is with a prostate biopsy – a procedure in which small samples of the prostate are removed and examined under a microscope. But generally speaking, screening for prostate cancer involves a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test and a digital rectal exam to feel the prostate gland.
“It’s slightly uncomfortable but painless, and takes less than 30 seconds,” Dr. Posadas said of these methods. “The amount of information that is gained from that is tremendous, and it can be a life-and-death type decision that is made.”
But it’s important to note, as we saw in the case of William Shatner, that the PSA test is not perfect. The prostate-specific antigen is a protein secreted by the prostate gland. Men have a small amount of PSA in their blood all the time, but large amounts can be a sign of cancer because when cancer cells grow, PSA spills into the blood.
An elevated PSA test, however, does not always mean you have prostate cancer. It can simply reflect that your prostate is enlarged – which is common – or it could signal an infection or inflammation. Because of this, the PSA test is controversial since high levels may lead to over-treatment in men who are more likely to die from something else. Regardless, our experts maintain that the PSA tests are helpful, and you should talk with your doctor about your own risks for the cancer and screening options.