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One man's fight against the silent disease

a teacher learns how much power knowledge can be

As he lay on the table in a Royal Columbian Hospital operating room waiting for the surgeon to remove his cancerous prostate gland, Craig Asmundson was a man with an attitude.

photo of asmundson "I wasn't nervous even when they wheeled me into the operating room," he recalls. "I had a defiant attitude. My feeling was that this disease has pissed off the wrong guy. I'm going to get out of this hospital and then I'm going after it."

At just 48 years of age and, a health nut notorious for his devotion to daily workouts, Asmundson had reason to be surprised, if not angry. Prostate cancer is an old man's disease, or so the mythology goes, and Asmundson had always been blessed with almost perfect health.

But in late 1995, intermittent pain in his groin prompted the senior kinesiology lab instructor to have his first physical exam in more than two years. The doctor found a pea-sized lump on his prostate and, in so doing, turned Asmundson's life upside down.

The month following discovery of the lump was the worst as evidence mounted that Asmundson might have cancer, but, then again, might not. "You have to wait two weeks to get a biopsy and then two more weeks to get the results! I was wondering: 'Why is this taking so long? What if the cancer spreads out of my prostate tomorrow?' You're sweating bullets because you just don't know."

Sweating or not, Asmundson took almost no time to determine a course of action. He was going to become an expert in prostate cancer. And, he was going to be as communicative about the disease as he possibly could.

Within an hour or so of learning about the possibly benign, possibly cancerous, lump, Asmundson had bought two books on prostate cancer. Within days he became a regular visitor at medical libraries at UBC [University of British Columbia] and Vancouver General Hospital, while surfing the Internet for information and seeking out support groups.

"By the time the urologist had all of my test results, I already knew what treatment I wanted and it was based on the most current literature available," he recalls. "You need to become the exceptional patient and learn and question because you can't always assume a doctor who is very busy has read the latest research on your illness. Knowledge is power!"

Being open about prostate cancer meant that Asmundson deliberately contacted his close friends and family individually to give them the news. The day after cancer was confirmed, he informed both of his classes - more than 200 students - to spare them any future, unpleasant surprises and also to spread the word. "You could have heard a pin drop in my Kinesiology 142 course," says Asmundson on the impact of his announcement. "I then asked them to go home and tell their fathers, their grandfathers and their uncles to get a physical check-up and a PSA test."

For a superbly fit individual who had never before been a hospital patient, the treatment for prostate cancer was, to put it mildly, a challenge. "You're worried about the possibility of death. And some of the possible treatment side effects - incontinence and impotence for example - are blows to one's masculinity. You wonder how this disease will effect your relationship with your wife, your job and how you can tell people. Some people cried when I told them. A lot of people equate prostate cancer with a death sentence, but that's not necessarily the case. More than 70 per cent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer will die of other causes. If detected early enough, prostate cancer is curable and survivors can lead very normal lives."

Asmundson credits his wife, family and friends with enormous support during the ordeal, but admits to having felt somewhat isolated despite their best efforts. "It's almost like you're in a herd of caribou," he explains. "Suddenly, wolves cull you out from the herd and you're alone, awaiting a fate which may not be very pleasant."

It was this sense of isolation and need for information that triggered Asmundson's search early on for prostate cancer support groups. "There's no substitute for talking to men who have been there, who know what it's like to experience that sense of loss of masculinity and to face premature death," he explains. "It's important to talk to others who have undergone various treatments to decide what's best for you and learn to cope with side effects."

Now, back to an almost normal life, Asmundson understands that he has no guarantees for future health. "I have an 80 per cent chance of being cancer-free in 10 years," he states matter-of-factly. My lump was the size of a pea which means there were probably a billion cancer cells there. There's no guarantee that some didn't get out of the gland and are lodged somewhere else in my body."

This reality means that Asmundson will undergo PSA tests two to three times a year for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Asmundson retains his kick-ass attitude and battles the disease, which he and others consider to be an epidemic, with impressive energy, just as he vowed to do prior to his operation.

"Every working day, 13 men in B.C. [British Columbia] are given word that they have prostate cancer," he reveals. "This is almost identical to the rate of breast cancer and yet breast cancer is a much better known disease attracting as much as 10 times the amount of research money. Women have done a much better job of getting organized and being vocal. Men have been snoozing."

Snoozing maybe, but Craig Asmundson is a one-man alarm clock.

Since getting mobile again, he and wife Gloria, have, with five other couples, started a prostate cancer support group for people in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody.

While attending a patient forum in Los Angeles last August, he helped set up an organizing committee to plan a similar event this fall in Seattle expected to attract 750 people from western Canada and the U.S. northwest.

At the same time, he's helping to set up a Greater Vancouver steering committee to coordinate area support groups and lobby for increased research funding. And, at the invitation of the Canadian Cancer Society, he's also one of five B.C. men who will be attending a national prostate cancer forum and a related support group conference in Toronto at the end of February.

The so-called silent disease is about to become a whole lot noisier if Craig Asmundson has his way. And he probably will.

[NOTE: See Asmundson's "Diary of a Disease"] © 1997 Simon Fraser University, Feb. 24, 1997. Used with permission.

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