Tom Hulsey has been an endurance athlete for more than 40 years, and has completed too many races to count. Prostate cancer didn’t stop him from lacing up his running shoes and getting back on his bike. (In fact, he trained for another half-distance triathlon (IRONMAN® 70.3 Hawaii) earlier this month). But for Tom, it’s not about finishing a race. It’s about getting to the starting line, and using his platform to share his experience and help other men who are facing a diagnosis of prostate cancer.
He’s guided by Jackie Robinson’s quote: “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.” Through his work on awareness and advocacy, Tom aims to forge connections, break the silence and stigma, and increase research funding for prostate cancer.
Isolated and overwhelmed
Because his grandfather had died of prostate cancer, Tom was aware of his increased risk, and got regular PSA screenings. When one PSA reading was elevated, he and his urologist monitored it at first, but after two more bumps, Tom had a biopsy. The diagnosis came on his 61st birthday in 2015. The cancer was Gleason 7 and confined to the prostate—meaning that his prognosis was good.
Still, the word “cancer” was a complete shock. Tom had always been very fit: “I felt like Superman…..cancer was the farthest thing from my mind.” Normally an outgoing, open person, Tom retreated. He told almost no one about his diagnosis and felt overwhelmed, angry, and embarrassed. Fortunately, even as he struggled emotionally, he was able to research his treatment options, interviewing specialists about surgery, external beam radiation therapy, and brachytherapy. And he recognized that many other men were dealing with their own diagnosis in isolation.
Setting small goals
Setting goals had always been crucial to Tom’s success as an athlete. Now, he found that working towards short- and long-term goals changed his mindset and gave him hope. Before his surgery, he trained to be in the best physical shape possible to prepare for recovery. Long-term, he wanted to walk his daughter down the aisle, and to complete another IRONMAN®. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 marathon–all in one day!
The surgery went well, and Tom is still NED (no evidence of disease) today. He did experience side effects of incontinence and erectile dysfunction, along with “the thing that no one likes to talk about: depression.” Sharing his story with other men in prostate cancer support groups proved vital to his mental recovery. Six months after surgery, he completed an IRONMAN® 70.3. Everyone’s goals are different, Tom notes: ”It doesn’t have to be a triathlon. For some people, the goal might be getting off the couch and walking around the block.”
Paying it forward
Having battled both prostate cancer and heart disease, Tom now works tirelessly to get the word out to other men that they don’t have to go through prostate cancer alone. “I’ve met so many men over the last few years that have suffered in silence….Don’t keep those emotions bottled up inside. Seek help. Seek a support group.” At certain races, he shares his story at a booth or as a featured speaker on a panel. All proceeds from his book, The Winning Mindset That Saved My Life, are donated to philanthropic organizations.
Maintaining a focus on wellness
Tom has been active all his life, and encourages others to maintain an active lifestyle to help themselves overcome barriers–whatever active means for your health situation. With age, and through health challenges, Tom has become more intentional about his training and nutrition. He doesn’t focus so much on his race times as on “the victory of getting to the starting line,” and carefully plans his training to include rest and recovery. He has always followed a “balanced” diet, which has evolved over the years. He chooses to avoid red meat, fried foods, dairy, and high-sugar foods, leaving plenty of room for whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and seafood.
Postscript: Races, like life, don’t always go as planned. Read about Tom’s experience in his own words here.