The man with the great smile is Ken Schweizer.

He’s 78 but doesn’t look it, a Korean War Veteran who’s been living with prostate cancer for nearly 13 years. “When I turned 65, I went on Medicare, and I thought it was a good opportunity to get a physical,” he says, which led to a prostate biopsy and a PSA test. His PSA was very high, “in the thousands, way, way up there.” He went to UCLA, where doctors told him his cancer “was too advanced in their opinion to operate on, because more than likely it had started to metastasize.” This was confirmed by bone scans and other tests.
So he started on androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), which he continues, and then several different forms of chemotherapy. “By this time, it was almost 10 years down the line, and I went back and started chemo again.” His longtime oncologist, Matthew Rettig, M.D., “is saying I’ll probably stay on chemo as long as I can tolerate it and it keeps the cancer under control, and hopefully something else might come down the pipeline.

Ken Schweizer

Ken Schweizer

Korean War Veteran

Precision Medicine for Veterans If you’re a U.S. Veteran, soon you will have unprecedented access to the very best new care for prostate cancer there is: precision oncology for prostate cancer. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has just signed a $50 million precision oncology agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.</> Why prostate cancer? Because U.S. veterans are prone to it. This year alone, 12,000 of them will be diagnosed with it. Some of them were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam; some inherited it through bad genes that run in their family, and some just developed it because of diet and plain bad luck. Why the VA? This has been a longtime goal for us, something medical oncologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, has been working on for years. In fact, he has a map in his office door that shows every VA clinic in the U.S., and he has been the driving force behind this agreement. “Veterans deserve the very best from our country,” he says, “including the very best care for prostate cancer – which is precision oncology, and that’s what we’re delivering as a model.” What does this mean to you as a veteran? For one thing, you will get access to clinical trials being conducted at some of the country’s top research institutions. Precision medicine means “finding the right drug for the right veteran with prostate cancer at the right time,” Simons notes, and if you have metastatic prostate cancer, your best hope of treatment and cure is one of the promising clinical trials being conducted at nationwide Centers of Excellence – six centers to start, with more to be added – in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, New York, and Chicago. Precision oncology includes genetic testing – a blood test that looks at your genes, which might make you eligible for new gene-targeted medicines. These clinical trials are investigating new forms of immunotherapy and chemotherapy, as well. “This program will speed FDA approval of precision treatments for advanced prostate cancer,” says Simons. As part of the program, veterans will get better screening for prostate cancer. “As they are screened, they can opt in or out of having their blood stored,” Simons adds. “If they opt in, and then if they get prostate cancer, we will have their DNA and we can check for mutated genes.” The VA will hire more than 120 oncologists to help care for veterans with prostate cancer, and will increase the number of VA investigators applying to the PCF for funding. That blood, and those records – which will be made anonymous – may hold the key to the cure. “The greatest limitation on the pace of progress is the lack of access to data,” says Simons. “The VA holds one of the largest data sets of patients in existence, and making that anonymized data available to investigators will save lives and move us closer to finding the cure for prostate cancer.” “We hope that if we do the work and raise the care of veterans with cancer, that level of care will become contagious,” says Simons.  

“I was just in chemo yesterday. The medication’s taken me 12 years down the track, and I’m still going. I feel pretty good. The first week after I get the chemo, I’m kind of weak, lethargic. I get it every three weeks, and the second week is better. The third week is pretty good. Then I go back and start again.”

One side effect of ADT is weakening of the bones, and three months ago, Schweizer tripped and broke his hip. “My bones are pretty brittle,” he says. But after a partial hip replacement, “I’m pretty well recovered. In fact, they x-rayed me today and the surgeon said everything looks good. I’m walking pretty good; I favor the one leg a bit, but a couple more months, and I should be as good as new on that. Before that came about, I never had anything, really.”

Because of Schweizer’s service in the U.S. Army, he was able to switch his care from UCLA to the VA Hospital. “I was treated for the first six or seven years at UCLA, then one of these prescriptions was going to be very, very expensive.” Then Dr. Rettig stepped in. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come over to the VA,’ because he treats patients at both places, ‘and we’ll see if you can’t save you money.’ That particular medication, the one that was so brutally expensive didn’t work too well, anyway. I’m happy with the VA. I see Dr. Rettig there; in fact, with the chemo, I think I get better treatment.” (read about PCF’s partnership with the VA here)

Schweizer was an engineer in the Army during the Korean War, and went into construction after the service. He worked in California and then in Australia, where he became general manager of a large construction company. “We worked everywhere, all through Australia, branches in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney. I met my wife there, we got married there, and both of our children were born in Australia. They’re adults now, and quite successful on their own.” The family moved back to California when the kids were young, and “we’ve been here ever since.”

Schweizer could sit around and be mad that he has cancer, and fill his mind with negative thoughts. That’s not his way.

“I’m happy to still be around here. Let’s face it: more than 10 years ago, I was told I didn’t have much chance. Why not be happy? I still do everything I need to do, drive, whatever.”

If he has any advice to offer other men in his situation, it is this:

“The only thing I can say is, stay positive. That’s been my experience. I didn’t let it get me down; in fact I worked through the first seven, eight or nine years of it. I worked 10 to 12 hours a day, while dealing with the prostate cancer. Keep a positive attitude. The other thing is, become educated about what it’s all about. There’s a lot of fears, and certainly men are dying, there’s no doubt about that. You really need to educate yourself and know what you’re dealing with, because in a lot of cases, prostate cancer is not a death sentence. You might have to give up a few things, but that’s okay. Read what you can, stay up to date with it, but just be positive. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

And, he adds, he has had a lot of help. “I have a great family. My wife and kids are very supportive. They’ve been very good through the whole thing. My grandkids are down here on a regular basis.” When he broke his hip, the family held a birthday party for his granddaughter right there in his hospital room. Schweizer has been able to see his grandchildren, to know them and be there for them for nearly 13 years. “That’s been important to me.”

Precision Medicine for Veterans If you’re a U.S. Veteran, soon you will have unprecedented access to the very best new care for prostate cancer there is: precision oncology for prostate cancer. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has just signed a $50 million precision oncology agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.</> Why prostate cancer? Because U.S. veterans are prone to it. This year alone, 12,000 of them will be diagnosed with it. Some of them were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam; some inherited it through bad genes that run in their family, and some just developed it because of diet and plain bad luck. Why the VA? This has been a longtime goal for us, something medical oncologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, has been working on for years. In fact, he has a map in his office door that shows every VA clinic in the U.S., and he has been the driving force behind this agreement. “Veterans deserve the very best from our country,” he says, “including the very best care for prostate cancer – which is precision oncology, and that’s what we’re delivering as a model.” What does this mean to you as a veteran? For one thing, you will get access to clinical trials being conducted at some of the country’s top research institutions. Precision medicine means “finding the right drug for the right veteran with prostate cancer at the right time,” Simons notes, and if you have metastatic prostate cancer, your best hope of treatment and cure is one of the promising clinical trials being conducted at nationwide Centers of Excellence – six centers to start, with more to be added – in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, New York, and Chicago. Precision oncology includes genetic testing – a blood test that looks at your genes, which might make you eligible for new gene-targeted medicines. These clinical trials are investigating new forms of immunotherapy and chemotherapy, as well. “This program will speed FDA approval of precision treatments for advanced prostate cancer,” says Simons. As part of the program, veterans will get better screening for prostate cancer. “As they are screened, they can opt in or out of having their blood stored,” Simons adds. “If they opt in, and then if they get prostate cancer, we will have their DNA and we can check for mutated genes.” The VA will hire more than 120 oncologists to help care for veterans with prostate cancer, and will increase the number of VA investigators applying to the PCF for funding. That blood, and those records – which will be made anonymous – may hold the key to the cure. “The greatest limitation on the pace of progress is the lack of access to data,” says Simons. “The VA holds one of the largest data sets of patients in existence, and making that anonymized data available to investigators will save lives and move us closer to finding the cure for prostate cancer.” “We hope that if we do the work and raise the care of veterans with cancer, that level of care will become contagious,” says Simons.  

Terms to know from this article:

Biopsy

The removal of cells or tissues for examination under a microscope. When only a sample of tissue is removed, the procedure is called an incisional biopsy or core biopsy. When an entire lump or suspicious area is removed, the procedure is called an excisional biopsy. When a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle, the procedure is called a needle biopsy or fine-needle aspiration.

androgen

A type of hormone that promotes the development and maintenance of male sex characteristics.

Oncologist

A doctor who specializes in treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment. For example, a radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer with radiation.

Side Effect

A problem that occurs when treatment affects tissues or organs other than the ones being treated. Some common side effects of cancer treatment are fatigue, pain, nausea, vomiting, decreased blood cell counts, hair loss, and mouth sores.

PSA

prostate-specific antigen (PSA): A substance produced by the prostate that may be found in an increased amount in the blood of men who have prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, or infection or inflammation of the prostate.