Every 3.3 minutes a man is diagnosed with prostate cancer and more than 3 million men and their families are fighting the disease today, making it the most common cancer in men in the country. In Nassau County more than 1,100 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year. Gunther Merz, an 81-years-young father and husband from Bayville was one of them.
Gunther, an active and otherwise healthy man, was shocked when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 following a routine physical exam. He hadn’t experienced any symptoms and had no family history of the disease, but a standard blood test revealed rising levels of a specific protein in the blood that can indicate prostate cancer, also referred to as a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test.
“My primary care physician had been checking my PSA levels routinely for years and never had any concerns until that day,” Gunther said recalling that fateful day 10 years ago. “He immediately referred me to a specialist who confirmed my diagnosis and prescribed hormone treatment to keep my PSA levels from climbing further, and prevent spread of the cancer to other areas of my body.”
Most prostate cancers are first found as a result of an irregular PSA blood test or a digital rectal exam (DRE). Once diagnosed, PSA testing is useful in determining the stage of a man’s disease and if more sensitive imaging tests, such as CT scans or bone scans, are needed to verify if the cancer has spread beyond the prostate.
“With improved screening techniques and treatment advances we’ve been able to substantially reduce the mortality associated with prostate cancer, but until recently we did not have much to offer men if first line therapy proved ineffective,” said Deepak A. Kapoor, M.D., a urologist from Advanced Urology Centers of New York based in Melville. “The good news is that in the last few years we’ve made significant strides so now we can offer treatment options to men with advanced prostate cancer that are clinically proven to extend life.”
Having lost his first wife to breast cancer, Gunther was no stranger to cancer and knew all too well what his diagnosis could mean. For eight years Gunther’s disease remained stable, but when his PSA began to climb again a bone scan confirmed that his disease had spread. While his physician made it clear that Gunther would not be cured of his disease, hope was offered in the form of new treatments that have led to a growing population of men living long term with prostate cancer that has spread or become metastatic.
When his physician recommended tackling his cancer with a new form of treatment for certain patients with advanced prostate cancer called immunotherapy, Gunther was eager to try it. Immunotherapies work by altering a patient’s own immune system to attack the cancer, and are clinically proven to extend survival in certain cancer patients.
“Testing is critical throughout the prostate cancer journey—even after an initial diagnosis,” added Kapoor. “If you are seeing meaningful changes in your PSA, it’s important to have testing which will determine if your disease has progressed. Even small changes in your PSA may indicate that you are a candidate for certain prostate cancer treatments.”
Ten years after his diagnosis, Gunther continues to undergo treatment for his prostate cancer while running the family business with his son and enjoys spending his free time walking the streets of Manhattan to “stay moving.”
“I’m grateful that my prostate cancer was diagnosed before it was too late. I realize that not all men are this fortunate and I feel compelled to share my story in the hopes of encouraging other men—and their loved ones—to be proactive about early detection for prostate cancer, and to get educated on testing and advances in treatment,” Gunther said. “I thought this would never happen to me. But statistically it’s likely to impact someone you know; so take it from me even if you’re otherwise healthy, stay on top of your checkups and screenings.”