“When we visited my grandfather in the hospital, it was horrible,” Severson said. “He had tubes everywhere, and it was a slow, painful process.”
Like most men, Severson thought this type of cancer was more of a concern for older men, so he was shocked after he switched primary care physicians and his new doctor asked him if he’d ever had a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test.
“My doctor said that though most men should start having this test at 50,” Severson said. “But I was only 42 so hadn’t had it done. By the time I was 50, my PSA numbers had been doubling.”
Most men without prostate cancer have PSA levels under 4 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Once the levels reach 10 or more, the chance of having prostate cancer is more than 50 percent.
“I had my first visit with my urologist and he gave me a rectal exam,” Severson said. “They had caught my cancer early and the doctor said if I had it removed, I would have the best odds.”
Severson had his surgery — a robotic assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy — to remove the cancerous organ in late February 2011 and came through with flying colors.
“I had no side effects and went about my life with continued good PSA results for many years,” Severson said.
But in late 2015, his levels starting doubling again.
“I started doing my research on radiation,” Severson said. “When you get this disease, it’s difficult to understand because with most cancers, you have stages of one to four. With this disease, it’s something called a ‘Gleason score.’ Not all prostate cancers are the same.”
Pathologists derive the Gleason score by looking at biopsy sample patterns and assigning a grade to the most predominant pattern and another grade to the second most predominant pattern. The two added together identify how aggressive the cancer is. A low Gleason score (2 – 4) means the cancer is less aggressive, while higher (7 – 10) are more aggressive.
“My cancer was downgraded to less aggressive,” Severson said. “I had nothing in my lymph nodes, though it had metastasized. “
To try stop the cancer from spreading further, Severson started radiation in March of the following year, just a few months after his mother, who had also been a cancer survivor, passed away.
“Radiation is designed so they can pinpoint where they want it to go,” Severson said. “I had 38 radiation treatments and came through it all very well.”
Today, Severson’s PSA levels remain at barely detectable, and he is making it his mission to educate everyone about this disease that does not have to needlessly take lives.
“It’s not a pretty death,” Severson said. “When it metastasizes, they don’t know where it is until it shows up in other organs and in the bones. It’s best to catch it before it gets to that point because there is no cure.”
But for Severson and men like him who have fought through the treatments to become healthy again, there is hope.
“If more men would make it commonplace to get their PSA levels checked at the same time when they are getting their cholesterol checked, it would save more lives,” Severson said. “Right now, there is no other test for prostate cancer except this one.”
Recently a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel determined that that PSA test isn’t always accurate and that an elevated level could mean something other than cancer, while some men with normal PSA levels are still diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“A rectal exam is easy and painless,” Severson said. “But it I hadn’t been going regularly for my PSA test, it wouldn’t have occurred. Men don’t want to talk about this disease. We don’t even want to go to the doctor when we have a cold. It’s not in our nature and this is why men are dying of this disease.”
Severson urges anyone who has cancer in his family, including breast cancer in mothers, to get checked after age 35.
“I have a lot of energy today,” Severson said. “I have a very full life and I’m grateful that I received treatment when I did. If it had been any later, it could have been a very different outcome.”