When Cranbrook resident Laird Siemens was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he knew he couldn’t fight it alone.
He decided that he needed someone to talk with, who could understand what he was going through, so he joined a local support group for men who had also had experience with the disease.
Although his initial response was to keep his cancer a secret, he ultimately decided that connecting with men who had experienced the same struggles would be a benefit. When he met up with some of the members, he immediately felt like they understood.
“It’s a real kick in the shins to get that diagnosis,” he said. “You sit in a little office. The doctor’s right there. It’s not a fun day for him either.”
“[But then] You see the guys. They’re cracking jokes and having fun. They know what you’re going to go through. You get sympathy and empathy.”
Siemens was diagnosed in 2018 at age 65 after multiple tests at Tamarack Medical Laboratory found higher-than-average levels of prostate-specific antigen in his blood and a subsequent prostate biopsy came back positive for cancer.
The group supported him when he had surgery to remove the cancer and during later treatments, after it was found that his cancer had spread. It has been five years since he was first diagnosed and he still meets with the group regularly.
Run by prostate cancer survivor Kevin Higgins, the group meets on the third Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in a classroom at College of the Rockies. The first half of the session is devoted to sharing information about prostate cancer and the second half, to an open group discussion. Sometimes the group watches films or listens to a guest speaker.
The group does not give medical advice, but it does provide its members with an outlet to express their feelings and concerns.
The next meeting takes place on April 19.
“When you’re diagnosed and you hear the words, ‘you have cancer,’ all you’re thinking is the big c. There’s too much anxiety built up around the whole word of cancer,” said Higgins.
“[The group], it tells you that you’re not alone, that other people have been through it.”
Higgins founded the group in 2008, two years after his prostate cancer was diagnosed and successfully treated. Since this time, the group has taken off. It currently has 62 members on the mailing list.
Prostate cancer is difficult subject for many men to talk about, said Higgins, because the side-effects of treatment often lower self-esteem. Men experience muscle weakness and fatigue and have difficulty building muscle. They also face sweats, hot flashes, breast enlargement, incontinence and erectile dysfunction. They may feel less like a man.
“Guys have to go into a drug store and get [feminine hygiene] pads to deal with incontinence,” he explained. “When they go in there and they find out they’re talking to their granddaughter’s friend who’s helping them, because that’s the person who’s working there, it’s not always a pleasant task. You don’t talk about that over the fence to your neighbour. In a support group, you can talk about that.”
Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in Canadian men, with one in every eight expected to develop it in his lifetime, but it has a high degree of survivability in comparison to other strains.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), the five-year net survival rate for the disease is as high as 90 per cent.
The rate in prostate cancer deaths has been declining since 1994, which CCS attributes to consistent screening activity. Screening involves taking a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which measures the amount of PSA in a person’s blood. High PSA levels are not necessarily indicative of cancer, so if a man shows high results over the course of multiple screenings, he is referred onward for a biopsy.
Prostate Cancer Foundation B.C recommends that most men start PSA testing at age 50, but it encourages testing at age 45 for men with African ancestry or men with a family history of prostate, breast or ovarian cancer.
Regular screening is deemed important because prostate cancer doesn’t have many symptoms. The disease has been dubbed “the silent killer.”
Siemens was asymptomatic and if it wasn’t for PSA testing, he would never have known he had the disease. Higgins’s only symptom was a series of reoccurring bladder infections.
Siemens said he thinks men should get their first test at their earliest recommended date to establish a baseline PSA level to compare future tests to. He explained that the PSA level recorded on an individual test is less important than the long-term trend within the PSA levels, which can show an increase in PSA over time.
“I’d probably get PSA checks more often, in hindsight,” he said.
Siemens had surgery in Cranbrook to remove his prostate, but after it was discovered that his cancer had metastasized, he drove all the way to Vancouver to receive radiation. There is currently no radiation treatment available at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, although the hospital district board has been pushing Interior Health and the provincial government to help them get radiation therapy included in the planning process for a new oncology and renal department.
Siemens received radiation treatment for a few minutes each day, for seven weeks. He stayed with his daughter during his medical trip and rode his bike from her residence to Vancouver Cancer Centre for his appointments. Although he had the luxury of sleeping in the city for free, he said that others are not quite as lucky, and that not having access to local radiation can present a huge barrier to treatment.
“I was very fortunate to stay with family down in Vancouver, but if I had to stay in a hotel for seven weeks, it would have broke the bank. If they could get radiation here, that would be wonderful.”
Higgins had surgery in Calgary in 2006 and he also stayed with his daughter during the procedure. At the time, surgery was not available in Cranbrook, so he had to journey far to get it.
“It’s one thing for those of us who are capable of moving around. If push came to shove, I could get in my car and drive. Not everyone could do that,” he explained. “Some people can’t afford a car, don’t have a car, and healthcare shouldn’t just belong to the people who can afford it. That’s what makes us Canadian, is that healthcare is for everybody.”
Those who are interested in joining the support group are welcome to stop by College of the Rockies on April 19. They can also contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 250-427-3322.