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Prostate Cancer Survivor

Rob Wilkinson

  • Rising PSA levels at regular check-ups
  • Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 at age 63
  • Treated with prostatectomy

As an active, healthy, world-traveling photographer, Rob Wilkinson was surprised by rising PSA levels identified during a regular check-up. The eventual diagnosis of prostate cancer was even more upsetting.

Receiving the diagnosis

“I’m healthy, I exercise. My height and weight have always been reasonably under control. I don’t smoke. So, the prostate cancer diagnosis was quite a shock to me,” says Rob who was 63 years old at the time of his diagnosis.

Rob’s primary care physician had been tracking prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels as part of Rob’s annual physical exam. In June 2010, his doctor noticed and was concerned that Rob’s PSA levels were rising over a relatively short period of time. He recommended a needle biopsy. The biopsy results revealed cancer in Rob’s prostate.

“There’s a grading system called the Gleason score and mine was very serious,” recalls Rob. “On a scale of one to ten, mine was a nine. That’s when I knew I had a potentially life-ending disease. Getting this news was a very, very difficult part of my life.”

Selecting a treatment

After receiving the diagnosis, Rob began to gather information about treatment options. “I felt a little bit like I was shopping my prostate around,” Rob laughs, “because Seattle happens to be a competitive marketplace for medical care. Each provider offered some very good advice.”

In discussing treatment options, Rob learned about a prostate cancer clinical study being conducted by Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA). Eventually Rob decided not to participate in the study because of the additional time it would require. However, the process of investigating all the options ultimately helped Rob select a surgeon.

“I asked the woman who was coordinating this particular study who she would recommend. ‘If it were my uncle, if it were my brother, if it were my grandfather, if it was my great grandfather, I would have Dr. Dan Lin do the surgery.’ That was the first moment of clarity in the entire process for me. So, I set up an appointment with Dr. Lin, and found him to be remarkably personal, extremely smart and–he will like this–his artistic skills were notable. And, he's a great surgeon,” Rob says.

During that appointment, Daniel Lin, MD, drew pictures of the prostate and the surrounding nerves and illustrated for Rob how the procedure would take place. The meeting helped Rob confirm his decision to proceed with a radical prostatectomy.

“Dr. Lin instilled confidence. At that point, I was desperately looking for some kind of clarity. I desperately wanted to move forward,” Rob recalls. “He was great at helping me (and my companions who joined me at my various appointments) to understand my options. His strengths are in discussing options clearly. Dr. Lin provided clarity at a time of great confusion. In my mind this is his gift.

“The anxiety that’s connected with the unknown was eating me up,” Rob adds. “Determining a plan and feeling a kind of resolution were really critical to me.”

Receiving and recovering from a prostatectomy

Rob went into surgery knowing that they might find that the cancer spread to other parts of his body. He says, “My Gleason score indicated that there were some bad cells in my prostate. Those bad cells could have found a home somewhere else. And, that would be something that I would have to deal with for the rest of my life. Those cells might have ended my life.” Rob’s surgery revealed that the cancer was contained within his prostate. No further treatments were required.

While the surgery itself wasn’t difficult, Rob found the recovery process to be more challenging than he’d anticipated. Thinking of how he felt after surgery, he describes himself as “not a happy camper.” He explains, “The drugs start to wear off and then you start to notice certain things on your body that are not feeling the way they used to. In my case there was a lot of fluid that was building up in my abdominal areas, the area surrounding the prostate, and that had to be drained.”

The process of getting up, going to the bathroom, and walking took a lot of effort. At one point Rob tried to move too quickly and landed on the floor, prompting reminders from caregivers that he needed to take it slow. This wasn’t easy to hear for someone who was ready to leave the hospital and wanted to “feel normal again.” 

“But I knew that the cancer had been removed from my body, so I told myself I could put up with anything.”

From the time of his initial diagnosis, an upcoming trip to China was an opportunity Rob was determined not to miss. Thankfully, he recovered in time to travel to Shanghai, where he was on location taking photographs. In spite of the physical demands of the trip (50 to 60 miles of walking while carrying camera gear), and not feeling as strong as usual, Rob felt good about being able to make the trip.

Every six months, Rob’s PSA levels are tested. He remains cancer free and continues to enjoy traveling around the world capturing photographs of architecture, parks, and public art that are distributed worldwide.

Recommending SCCA to friends and family

Since receiving care at SCCA, Rob has referred several family members and friends who have prostate cancer to Dr. Lin.

“In my case, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance eliminated a lot of anxiety because I had a great deal of confidence that they knew what they were doing and that they were on my side; that’s a critical piece,” Rob says. “Trust is huge.” Rob tells other people facing treatment for cancer: “Find the people and the medical establishment that you can trust.”

Sharing advice with those newly diagnosed

Rob’s advice to people who are newly diagnosed extends beyond choosing a treatment center into how to approach the diagnosis, how to handle appointments, and how to keep a positive attitude. He suggests, “First of all, acknowledge the fact that you’re going to go through a lot of fear and there’s nothing you can do about that. You’re going to be frightened; you’re going to be upset. Get help immediately–from a counselor, a loved one, a friend. It doesn’t matter. Just get somebody that you can talk to about it.”

He also recommends having someone attend appointments with you. That friend or family member can offer support, take notes, and be there to talk about the issues.

“The next thing is having a future plan, a destination–have something life-affirming that you can look forward to doing. In my case it was a destination–after treatment, I was going to Shanghai,” Rob says.

Reflecting on the experience

Of his experience with cancer, Rob feels it has changed him for the better. “When you have cancer, there is a gift you’re granted: understanding what’s important. And I know it’s a cliché to say that, but it truly is, it’s important. It’s the thing that occurs to you after you’ve received the diagnosis, and particularly after you’ve gone through the treatment. It’s how good food tastes, how beautiful leaves on the trees look in the spring, how incredible it is to have such wonderful friends and family that you love. I think it actually made me a better person for having gone through this.”

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