Ben Stiller was diagnosed with cancer in 2014

October 2016

THE TIMES 10 October 2016

The Hollywood star's personal advice on beating the disease that nearly killed him

"So, yeah, it's cancer." My urologist segued from talking about how inconvenient it was picking his daughter up at school that morning to dropping a cancer diagnosis on me without missing a beat. Two weeks earlier, I didn't even have an urologist.

CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

Ben Stiller was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. 'I was fortunate it was detected early enough to treat'

"Yeah," he said, in a slightly nonplussed way, gazing at the results, "I was surprised myself."

As my new, world-altering doctor spoke about cell cores and Gleason scores, probabilities of survival, incontinence and impotence, why surgery would be good and what kind would make the most sense, his voice literally faded out like every movie or TV show about a guy being told he had cancer . . . a classic Walter White moment, except I was me, and no one was filming anything at all.

I got diagnosed with prostate cancer on Friday, June 13, 2014. On September 17 of that year I got a test back telling me I was cancer-free. The three months in between were a crazy rollercoaster ride with which about 180,000 men a year in America can identify. (In the UK, more than 47,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year - that's 130 men every day.)

Right after I got the news, still trying to process the key words echoing dimly in my head ("probability of survival-vival-vival-va . . . ", "incontinence-nence-nence-ence . . ."), I promptly got on my computer and googled "Men who had prostate cancer". I had no idea what to do and needed to see some proof this was not the end of the world.

John Kerry . . . Joe Torre . . . excellent, both still going strong. Mandy Patinkin . . . Robert De Niro. They're vital. OK, great. Feeling relatively optimistic, I then of course had to do one more search, going dark and quickly tapping in "died of" in place of "had" in the search window.

As I learnt more about my disease (one of the key learnings is not to google "people who died of prostate cancer" immediately after being diagnosed with prostate cancer), I was able to wrap my head around the fact that I was incredibly fortunate. Fortunate because my cancer was detected early enough to treat. And also because my specialist gave me a test he didn't have to.

Taking the PSA test saved my life. Literally. That's why I am writing this now. There has been a lot of controversy over the test in the past few years. Articles and op-eds on whether it is safe, studies that seem to be interpreted in many different ways, and debates about whether men should take it at all. I am not offering a scientific point of view here, just a personal one, based on my experience.

The bottom line for me: I was lucky enough to have a doctor who gave me what they call a "baseline" PSA test when I was about 46. I have no history of prostate cancer in my family and I am not in the high-risk group, being neither - to the best of my knowledge - of African or Scandinavian ancestry. I had no symptoms.

What I had - and I'm healthy today because of it - was a thoughtful specialist who felt I was about the age to start checking my PSA level, and discussed it with me.

If he had waited, as the American Cancer Society recommends, until I was 50, I would not have known I had a growing tumour until two years after I got treated. If he had followed the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) guidelines, I would have never gotten tested at all, and not have known I had cancer until it was way too late to treat successfully.

Now, in my case, my doctor, Bernard Kruger, watched my PSA tests rise for over a year and a half, testing me every six months. As the numbers continued to rise, he sent me to the urologist, who gave me a slightly invasive physical check in his office using a gloved finger. This took all of ten seconds. While I don't recommend it for fun, amazingly some don't recommend it at all. After this exam, and looking at my rising PSA numbers, he suggested an MRI to get a road map of my prostate.

It's a non-invasive procedure like the one athletes get to check for torn ACLs. Loud, but painless. Only after studying the MRI results did my doctor recommend a not-fun-at-all biopsy. Unlike the MRI, the biopsy was as invasive as it gets: long needles in sensitive places and more small talk about kids and school pick-ups while it was all going down.

Then the biopsy came back positive. Of course "positive" for medical tests is usually not so positive. I had a Gleason score of 7 (3+4), which is categorised "mid-range aggressive cancer". Surgery was recommended. At this point I decided to go out and get a few different opinions. All the doctors I talked to concurred that the tumour needed to be taken out.

Ultimately, I found a wonderful surgeon named Edward Schaeffer who I felt comfortable with. He performed a robotic assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy. Due to a lot of skill and a little beneficence from some higher power, he got all the cancer. As of this writing, I am two years cancer-free and extremely grateful.

So, what is the deal with this PSA test and why the controversy? It is a simple, painless blood test. It is not dangerous in itself in any way. If the PSA (prostate specific antigen) value is elevated in the blood, or levels rise sharply over time, it could indicate the presence of prostate cancer. It is definitely not foolproof.

The criticism of the test is that depending on how they interpret the data, doctors can send patients for further tests like the MRI and the more invasive biopsy, when not needed. Physicians can find low-risk cancers that are not life-threatening, especially to older patients. In some cases, men with this type of cancer get "over-treatment" like radiation or surgery, resulting in side-effects such as impotence or incontinence. Obviously this is not good; however, it's all in the purview of the doctor treating the patient.

But without this PSA test itself, or any screening procedure at all, how are doctors going to detect asymptomatic cases like mine, before the cancer has spread and metastasised throughout one's body, rendering it incurable? Or what about the men who are most at risk, those of African ancestry, and men who have a history of prostate cancer in their family? Should we, as the USPSTF suggests, not screen them at all? There is growing evidence that these guidelines have led to increased cases of prostate cancers that get detected too late for the patient to survive the disease.

Five years after its initial recommendation to stop PSA testing, the USPSTF is presently, per its website, in the process of "updating its recommendations". I think men over the age of 40 should have the opportunity to discuss the test with their doctor and learn about it, so they can have the chance to be screened. After that an informed patient can make responsible choices as to how to proceed.

I count my blessings that I had a doctor who presented me with these options. After I chose to take the test, he directed me to doctors who worked at centres of excellence in this field to determine the next steps. This is a complicated issue, and an evolving one. But in this imperfect world, I believe the best way to determine a course of action for the most treatable, yet deadly cancer, is to detect it early.