Gary Harris has always liked to help out.
While living in Minneapolis and working in land surveying, he and his wife, Sharon, volunteered and donated almost every chance they had. After he retired in 2007 and moved to the lakes area, he always intended to continue to volunteer, but he planned to get settled first.
Unfortunately, life threw a wrench in his plans.
“We bought a house in Baxter on Red Sand Lake on the northwest corner in 2003,” Harris said. “We remodeled that and got it ready and moved in about 2007 or '08. I was retired about six months. Life was good, and then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was a shock at the time.”
Perhaps most shocking is that Harris had no symptoms associated with prostate cancer.
“I tell this to everyone,” Harris said. “I never had a symptom or sign I had cancer. My side effects have been from treatment. I was always diligent about physical exams. My general practitioner down in Burnsville had found a lump on my prostate on a regular yearly exam and we did a PSA test and it was elevated.”
Blood tests measure PSA, or prostate specific antigen, as a screening for prostate cancer; however, PSA can be high for reasons other than cancer.
Harris had additional tests and sought the opinion of a second doctor to confirm the diagnosis. He went through surgery to remove his prostate and 13 lymph nodes. His surgeon felt confident that he had removed all the cancer. Harris had the choice of doing chemotherapy or other treatments following surgery.
“We decided to wait three months and see what happens, and six months and nine months,” Harris said. “Every time we went in for tests it was 000, so after two and a half years we thought we had this thing made. Then we went in for the third year and had a test and my PSA was elevated. It only meant one thing. If you don't have a prostate, you have prostate cancer if you have an elevated PSA. It's as simple as that. That's the only way you can have a PSA reading.”
Doctors immediately found just one small tumor under his bladder, so they used radiation to treat it. Afterward they waited for his PSA levels to drop, but they never did. They knew he had cancer somewhere, but after many tests, they couldn't find it.
“It was a case that I had cancer somewhere and they didn't know where,” Harris said. “I had a friend who was developing an experimental program for locating metastatic cancer for recurrent prostate cancer. He developed this test to locate where it was in your body. It was still experimental at the time. They wanted my PSA level to be higher than what it was. It was rising slowly. I wasn't in danger of dying immediately.”
It took about a year for Harris to become eligible for the procedure. He said that waiting period was likely the most difficult and stressful time of his life. When his PSA numbers were elevated enough, he went back.
“It showed up on the screen in a bright green glow where the cancer was,” Harris said. “It showed up in two ribs, two lymph nodes in my chest and my eighth and 12th T in my spine, and my tailbone was entirely covered in solid cancer by this time. We went from the best to the worst in a period of about 4 ½ years. We have been feeling good. We were on the mountaintop and down in the valley.”
Doctors gave him a 20% chance of surviving the year, but he responded fast and well to chemotherapy and radiation. Halfway through treatment the cancer was gone in one rib and in his lymph nodes, almost gone in his spine and half gone in his tailbone.
“Everyone was elated,” Harris said. “We continued through the end of that and the scans at the end were all in remission. I had my miracle in life.”
Since then Harris has had another tumor, which was treated successfully and without incident. Overall, he's been in remission for three years. Looking back on the experience has been humbling, especially considering he was one of the fortunate ones.
“Three or four other gentlemen went through it the same time I did,” Harris said. “Their cancers were about the same and I found out afterwards that I lived and they all died. That's an earthshaking development too.”
He's back to helping others
Now that the chaos of cancer is over and the Harrises have settled into a new house outside of Nisswa, they are back to their old selves.
“It's time to start saying yes again,” Harris said. “I've been saying yes too many times I think. That's OK. We know how to get involved in things and we're good at what we do. We're helpful.”
They are involved in many things across the lakes area. Sharon is a member of the Nisswa Women's Association and the Women's Philanthropic Education Organization. Gary is president of his homeowners association, on the Nisswa planning commission and vice president of the Lakes Area Food Shelf.
He's preparing to tackle one more thing - that is, providing a supportive environment for men in the fight against prostate cancer.
Harris had led a group of 25 or so people after his first fight against the disease. He had to drop that group when he returned to treatment, but for months now he has been preparing to start a support group once again. And he wrote a book. It started as just an essay he hoped to publish in a local paper, but it grew.
“I was going to start it two years ago and I really couldn't,” Harris said. “You need a tool to help people. I'm just another guy out of the woods who wants to talk to people about prostate cancer. In order to get some expertise and be regarded as a guy with expertise and be regarded as an expert you have to get the word out about who you are, what you went through, and more than that what the experiences are. That's why I decided I was going to write a paper.”
When Harris' article grew into a book titled “Man-Opause: My Continuing Battle With Metastatic Prostate Cancer," he had to revisit his records and all his experiences, which was a shock, but Harris believes the brutal honesty and the very private information in his book will help those going through this very personal cancer. The book was not only to establish him as an authority on the topic, but to help others talk about prostate cancer.
“I wanted to get the word out to people, especially to men, that they have to be diligent when you get over a certain age, 40-45, you should start thinking about these things,” Harris said. “You need to have regular testing to get base lines. Most men don't want to talk about that kind of thing so they'll ignore it. They aren't bothered with it. I'll talk in small groups about it and I'll be talking about what I went through and what happened. I notice people around me will start listening, men and women. They almost always come up with the same questions. What kind of symptoms did I have? I look at them and say I had no symptoms. That's a frightening thing to hear.”
Harris hopes the support group he's starting will likewise help people discuss this cancer more openly. He recalls that when he was facing treatment there weren't a lot of options for support. He had his friends, family and his church, but he didn't have many people he could talk to and empathize with. Harris hopes his group can help young people who have not yet faced this cancer to watch for it. He hopes it will help people fighting the cancer keep positive. He hopes it will give survivors a place to provide support and get support from people like them. Those who have been through the fight have a lot of information to offer, especially hope. Harris feels that people are too quiet about prostate cancer.
“That would be my target audience, trying to catch the guys who haven't quite been there yet so they are conscious about what's going on and they get testing,” Harris said. “Like anything, if you catch what's going on early it's a slam dunk today. Cancer cures, we're running 70-80-90%. About 10 or 15 years ago it was only 25%. Prostate cancer is something. Men's health and prostate cancer. You don't hear about it on the radio, television or newspaper.”
Harris compared prostate cancer to breast cancer, for which the fight is very public. He said prostate cancer needs more publicity, especially considering its prevalence.
“If you live long enough, a man is going to probably have prostate cancer. Many men die with it. Something else gets them first,” Harris said.
The first meeting of the Lakes Area Prostate Cancer Support Group will be 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. There is no charge. Refreshments will be available.