My Prostate Cancer Story: Robert Cunningham

One man's journey to reverse the odds and take control of his health

How far would you go to protect yourself and your family? What if it was a matter of life and death? And what if the answer was a simple exam?

Like many, Robert Cunningham of Richmond, Virginia would do just about anything for his family. When he lost his grandfather and uncle to prostate cancer, he was devastated. But nothing prepared him for the death of his father from the disease 3 years ago. “When my father died, my world was crushed” says Robert, who has two daughters ages 18 and 33. “I could not let my girls experience that feeling.”

Reeling from these tragedies, Robert had an important choice to make—he could ignore his risk of prostate cancer, or “man up” and get checked for the disease. For him, the choice was easy: he wanted be around to dance at his daughters’ weddings.

Knowing the odds were stacked against him—men with a close relative with prostate cancer are twice as likely to develop the disease—he chose to take control of his health and get screened for the sake of his children. “The loss of my father affected me more than I could have imagined, and I didn’t want them to have this burden,” he says.

After his father’s diagnosis, Robert became especially vigilant about his prostate health, learning as much as he could about the disease. He also started including prostate cancer screenings with his annual physical exam 12 years ago at age 40, the suggested age that a man with family history should get checked.

This year, at age 52, Robert found out he has prostate cancer. When he received his diagnosis, he was obviously disappointed, but he said he wasn’t surprised because he knew that his family history presented a significant risk. However, more than anything he was thankful that his tumor was caught before it could pose any real danger. “When my father and grandfather got their diagnoses it was too late and the cancer had spread,” he says. “I was able to focus on my prostate cancer being in the earliest stage, and from my research I knew that it’s a slow growing tumor,” he says.

While Robert was a candidate for a number of treatment options, including active surveillance, he elected to have his prostate surgically removed because of his significant family history. His diligence in learning about his options fully prepared him for his surgery in November, and his doctors are optimistic for a positive, cancer-free outcome.

As the surgery date draws nearer, he uses Facebook to connect and share his experience with other men, who he hopes will benefit from his insight. While family history is one of the most reliable predictors of prostate cancer, he believes that many men do not think it will happen to them. As Robert attests, “Knowing your family history is one thing, but being proactive about your prostate health—regular check-ups, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise—is another.”

This is the lesson that Robert feels is the key to a long, healthy life, and he uses every opportunity to set a good example. As a musician, he sings across the country and abroad. He uses these performances as a platform to spread the message about the importance of getting checked.

Looking back on his experience, Robert is proud of his vigilance and dedication to health. Taking that first step and talking to your doctor about prostate cancer might be tough, he says, but even more difficult is having to tell your loved ones that you have cancer. When he told his daughters about his diagnosis, he was able to reassure them that he would be around for all of their special moments for years to come. By taking control of his life’s journey, Robert forged a new destiny, ensuring a future with his family. He couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Robert’s story is a prime example of the importance of knowing your family history. To learn more about prostate cancer risk factors click here.

Terms to know from this article:

Active Surveillance

Active surveillance is an option offered to patients with very low-risk prostate cancer (low grade, low stage, localized disease). Patients are monitored carefully over time for signs of disease progression. A PSA blood test and digital rectal exam (DRE) and prostate biopsy are performed at physician-specified intervals. Signs of disease progression will trigger immediate active treatment.

Tumor

A mass of excess tissue that results from abnormal cell division. Tumors perform no useful body function. They may be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).