According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), women are twice as likely as men to visit the doctor for annual exams and preventive services. Studies show that regular screening by men considerably increases early detection of highly treatable diseases. Excelsior College’s staff member Donna Aitoro lost her husband recently to prostate cancer. She feels it is important to share her story during Men’s Health Month with Excelsior Life, since the outcome may have been different, if diagnosed sooner.
Donna’s husband Jim and daughter Nia
Donna Aitoro, managing editor of test development in the Center for Educational Measurement at Excelsior College, recently felt the impact of cancer. Her husband, Jim Williams, passed away on May 9, 2013, after a long struggle over five years, bravely borne, with prostate cancer. He was 64 years old.
“The frustrating thing is that it could have been noticed earlier if the right tests had been done,” she said. “Plus, I should have caught it! There’s a section in the content area of one of the nursing exams that is all about the early warning signs of cancer.”
Jim worked for 15 years as a soccer referee and baseball umpire, to balance out his career as a teacher. In 2006, he began experiencing radiating back and hip pain. For a year, he went to an orthopaedist, who took an X-ray, told him it was arthritis related to his sports activities, and treated him with occupational therapies.
Ideally, an MRI should have been done instead. At such a critical time in the growth of cancer, X-rays are a crude, outdated diagnostic tool that usually miss early-stage tumors. If it had been detected early, Jim might have died at an older age, of something other than prostate cancer, like many other men.
Prostate cancer is a slow-growing cancer compared to other types. Then it takes off. Other factors conspired against early detection in Jim’s case. He had fallen through the cracks of the medical system because at the time of the onset of the disease, he had switched doctors. Something got lost in the process, and two years went by without the proper tests. By the time Jim was given the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test and an MRI, in early 2009, the cancer had metastasized well into his bones.
Upon recommendation from local oncologists, he immediately had surgery to remove his right femur, which they replaced with a titanium rod to stabilize the region. Over the next three and a half years, doctors at other cancer centers treated him with a rotating blend of chemo, radiation, and hormones. The trips to and from New York City were difficult.
Jim had been participating in a double-blind study, conducted in seven countries, in an effort to extend his life and to contribute to cancer research. On March 29, 2013, Jim’s doctors told him they were “out of options.”
“It was like he’d fallen off a cliff,” Donna said. “I remember him saying over the years that it would have made all the difference in the world had he known any of the treatments would cure him. But we knew it couldn’t,” she said. “I remember watching the lab reports with him as they went up and down, up and down, over the years. You never really knew which way the trend was going, and it’s a tough way to live life. But he won the prize in stiff-upper-lipdom, that’s for sure.”
However, quality of life endures. From the time he was diagnosed until five weeks before he passed away, Jim was active in local poetry and music communities and doted on their 17-year-old daughter, Antonia. When the neuropathy and arthritis in his hands made it too difficult to play acoustic guitar, he turned to the bass guitar.
Antonia (“Nia”) has felt the impact of her Dad’s cancer in way only a 17 year old can. She was 13 at the time the cancer had been properly diagnosed. “Being a teenager is rough enough without having to go through something like this, too,” Donna said. “And it still doesn’t matter. Two years, five years, two months, two weeks, no matter when that time comes, you’re still not ready for it,” she said. “I know, I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve got a T-shirt. But as Nia rightly said, ‘you were 36 when Grandpa died, Mom. Not 17.’”
Lightening can indeed strike twice: Donna’s father had also been diagnosed with prostate cancer, at the same age and same late stage, back in 1986. “I still wasn’t prepared for it, however,” she admitted. “But early detection could have made a difference in both of their cases. With Jim, his went unnoticed because of the wrong diagnosis. Dad didn’t even go to the doctor until it was too late because he was so scared by the symptoms.”
Cancer may change life. But it doesn’t end it. Donna explains that her family never could have gone through end-of-life illness without hospice – in both cases. “I couldn’t be more grateful,” she said. “If I had to go through this experience, though, there’s no better place to have done it than right here at Excelsior College – from the generous extended illness benefits, to the nurses who answered my incessant questions with patience and insight and, especially, to my coworkers at the Center for Educational Measurement. They were there for me in ways I can’t even begin to find words for. End of life is truly a ‘community sport,’ for lack of a better word. It’s begun to see us through a process that’s really just beginning.”
Nia and Donna participated in the annual Walk for Hospice on June 15, in memory of both men.
For more on prostate cancer or The Community Hospice, please visit the links provided.
Update: Donna shared her story on YNN in August 2013 to help create awareness for early detection of prostate cancer. To view story, click here.