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Nurse Jenny Chen: Making a Difference for Veterans with Prostate Cancer

Rob Crocker knows a lot about jazz.  He started out as a jazz musician in Brooklyn, New York.  When his hearing was damaged during the Vietnam War, he switched to jazz radio and programming jazz, with a focus on Brazilian music.  His recognizably warm, velvety voice is familiar to radio audiences worldwide, and in New York City, where he currently hosts jazz shows on WBGO, he holds the record (no pun intended) as the longest-running disc jockey in the history of jazz radio.

But Rob didn’t know very much about prostate cancer, and when he was diagnosed with it several years ago, he needed help navigating the treatment and side effects – first of radical prostatectomy, and then of radiation therapy, after his PSA started to go up again.  Fortunately, in addition to having good doctors at the VA New York Harbor Health Care System, Manhattan campus, he found a caring Urology Nurse Practitioner, Jenny Chen, ARNP.  “Jenny was my confidante,” says Rob.  “She talked me through all of it.  Without Jenny, I probably would not have been able to be so strong about it.”

A good nurse can make a huge difference for a patient struggling to deal with an illness, not only in comfort, or pain relief, or even in teaching how to manage symptoms or side effects – but in hope and confidence.   Among the most significant issues men with prostate cancer must deal with are side effects of surgery and radiation, including erectile dysfunction.  “Jenny is one of the few people who insists that I do not give up hope for a relationship, that I do not give up hope for happiness in life, that this is not a major issue – from Day 1 to now.”

With medical oncologist Iman Osman, M.D., Jenny Chen sees men with early to locally advanced prostate cancer.  “I have a lot of great patients,” she says, “and it’s important that they can share their issues with me,” particularly issues with recovery of sexual function.  “I go over the treatment options and see which ones they are open to trying,” talking together with the patient’s spouse or partner, if possible.  “Some of the partners are understanding, and some are not so understanding,” she notes.  “For men, this is a very sensitive topic.”   Because her patients are also soldiers – who are taught to be tough, not complain, and just carry on – sometimes it takes a while for them to open up and discuss something that can make them feel vulnerable and inadequate.

But Jenny wants them to know that help is available, that there is hope, and that this disease does not define them.  “Mr. Crocker is one of my great patients.  It’s so rewarding when I’m able to address the issues and they have a positive result.  Many of my patients,” like Rob, “have become friends.  They stop by and say, ‘I just came to see you.’  It’s a great feeling; I’m so happy to be part of the team.  Mr. Crocker is one of my favorite patients.  I’m so touched, taking care of these wonderful Veterans.  I feel so happy to be here every day.”

Rob’s prostate cancer was likely caused by exposure to the pesticide, Agent Orange, in Vietnam, where he served in the 25th Combat Division of the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1968 – first in the infantry, then with assault helicopters.  “We were up in the northern highlands,” he says.  “I didn’t even know about Agent Orange.  I just thought some of these plants looked strange!”  Years later, in 2013, when he was in his late sixties, prostate cancer was not on Rob’s radar at all.  “My doctor said, ‘Your PSA level’s up, we should do a biopsy.’  I remember, I was sitting in the doctor’s office afterward for the result.  I said, ‘I guess I’m wasting your time,’ and I was crossing my legs.  The doctor said, ‘Not exactly,’ and my leg just froze in mid-air.  Due to the Agent Orange, it was a rapid progression.”

When the cancer came back after surgery, it was nurse Jenny who convinced Rob to undergo radiation therapy.   At every visit, they talked, “about the cancer, my sex life, my emotional life, how they all relate, now not to give in, and all the different ways you can work around it,” says Rob.  “After seeing her, I would always walk out straight up, because Jenny gave me the power to keep on going in the beginning.  I did not want to do the radiation, but Jenny convinced me.  She cares.  She’s a human professional, not just a medical professional.”

If Rob Crocker could give any advice to younger men, it’s this:  “Don’t wait.  Get tested early.  I waited too long.  In my day, it was the finger (the rectal exam, the primary means of detecting prostate cancer before the PSA blood test came along), and I was like, ‘No, thank you!  Then the blood test came, and I thought, ‘Nah.’  But my doctor was persistent, and I finally broke down and said okay.  By that point, it was too late.  My advice is, don’t wait.  Get the blood test ASAP.  Wherever you are, whatever walk of life you are.”

And now Jenny Chen’s advice:  “Prostate cancer is not a death sentence.  There are so many treatments out there.  No one wants to have a diagnosis of prostate cancer, but many men can be cured.  If it’s diagnosed early, they can still have a good lifestyle.  Even with metastatic cancer, we have better treatment options now.”  There is hope.