(The Root) — Twenty-one years ago my mother, Mary Lewis, learned that she had cancer. It was skin cancer — melanoma — doctors told her, and by the time it was detected, the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes. She was given six months to live, but even as the cancer ravaged her body, she held on for two years. She died at a hospice in 1993. She was 56.
Four years ago my oldest brother, Joe, sat me down in the living room of his home and explained to me the seriousness of his cancer. It was prostate cancer, and by that time it had spread to his lymph nodes, too. He explained that even though the drugs he was taking would buy him some time, the cancer cells would eventually consume his body. Our family was at Joe's hospital bedside the night he died in April 2010. He left behind a wife and four sons — two of them in their early teens.
One family. Two devastating results. And now cancer's back for a third round. This time it's my battle. What I expected to be a routine PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test last year resulted in a call from my doctor that felt like a sledgehammer to the head: "Your levels are elevated," she told me. "We want you to come in and get retested."
The second test also came back elevated. The biopsy that followed confirmed the worst: I had cancer. Damn.
Even though it's been some time since I was told that I had cancer, I'm still numb. To know that something inside my body can potentially kill me consumes my thoughts every day. The thought of what cancer has done to my family — and what it can do to me — robs me of sleep every night. Still, I consider myself lucky.
Prostate cancer is a silent killer, and because it grows slowly, many men have no idea it's there. With the spike in my PSA levels, it's likely that I've lived with cancer for many years. Fortunately for me, the cancer was found in its early stages and, based on tests so far, never left the prostate. Doctors tell me that with treatment, I can expect a full recovery.
But some men never have a shot at recovery, mainly because they have no idea the cancer is there. After telling a close friend two weeks ago that I had prostate cancer, I asked him the question that I ask all my friends now: When was the last time you had a PSA test? His response: Never. He's 49 years old, just like me.
The following facts — which I learned after I was diagnosed — will, hopefully, have him calling his doctor this week:
One in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime. Think about that: If you're at home having a cookout with 11 of your buddies, it's likely that two of you at some point in your lives will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.
If you're an African-American man, those odds increase to nearly one in five. African-American men have the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world and have the disease at rates three times higher than those of white men.
Prostate cancer is the second-most-common cancer among men, behind skin cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men.
If a first-degree family member has prostate cancer (like my brother), you have nearly three times the risk of being diagnosed.
The average age of diagnosis is 65. But I'm proof that, while not the norm, the disease also occurs in younger men. I was diagnosed at 49, but the cancer may have been growing inside me since my first PSA spike, when I was 45. St. John's basketball coach Steve Lavin was 46 when he was diagnosed, and dealing with the disease took him out of last season.
Jerry Bembry's mother, Mary Lewis. (Courtesy of Jerry Bembry)
Here's the most important stat: Most men with prostate cancer don't die from it. But the key to surviving prostate cancer is regular testing. People like Joe Torre, Robert De Niro, Colin Powell and Harry Belafonte are alive today because their prostate cancer was detected in its early stages.
There's some debate about whether PSA tests are necessary. A report released last year by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggested that PSA tests don't save lives and that routine tests aren't necessary.
I'm here to tell you that panel report is wrong. PSA tests are necessary. With the results of that test, I get a chance to be a cancer survivor. Without the test, I'd probably be dead in six years.
There are many ways to treat prostate cancer, and I've researched them all. I've decided to have my prostate removed. The surgery was supposed to occur this week but was postponed because of a lesion found on one of my ribs. Hopefully that lesion turns out to be an old sports injury. If that's the case, I'll undergo surgery in the coming weeks.
This hasn't been a pleasant experience. My body has been probed, penetrated and pierced, and pieces of my prostate have been clipped and removed during this process. Some of those procedures, months later, still leave me shaking. But it's all necessary. This entire ordeal hopefully gives me a chance to have the best 50th-birthday celebration in September — a celebration of my continuing journey to be cancer free.
I'm learning a lot during this process of getting this disease out of my body, and I'll share my experiences and what I've learned about prostate cancer in my blog (jerrybembry.com). There are a lot of changes you can make in your life that can limit your risk of prostate cancer. Hopefully, what I have to say will help keep someone away from the situation I'm in now.
In the meantime, heed this advice:
If you are a male over 40 and, like me, have been so caught up in the grind of work that you've skipped a few physicals, get tested.
If you're a woman who cares about her age-40-plus man, husband, brother or father, urge him to get tested.
If your family medical history is like mine, you already know the deadly effects of cancer. If you've passed your 40th birthday, please get tested.
If not for cancer, my oldest brother would have been sitting at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago alongside his wife and three sons, watching his youngest son, Jayson, perform as a finalist in a classical piano competition. If it weren't for cancer, my mother would have had a special weekend last week: a joint celebration of her granddaughter's college graduation and Mother's Day.
Cancer took those moments away from my family. Cancer, within my immediate family, is undefeated. In addition to my mother and brother, cancer has claimed two uncles on my father's side (both victims of prostate cancer) and one uncle on my mother's side (liver cancer).
Now it's my turn facing cancer, and I'm here to claim the first victory. And when I'm cancer free, I have this message for the disease: Please leave my family alone. You've caused us enough pain.
Jerry Bembry with his brother Joe Bembry. (Courtesy of Jerry Bembry)
Jerry Bembry is a longtime sports journalist who has covered professional basketball for ESPN and the Baltimore Sun. Recently Bembry was a senior video producer at WYPR in Baltimore, and he teaches in the mass-communications department at Towson University. He will continue to write about his experiences in battling cancer — and his recovery — at his blog.