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Actor Dennis Hopper left behind a legacy of movie achievements when he died on May 29, 2010, at age 74 from prostate cancer. He also left behind valuable life lessons about prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is a deadly disease that only afflicts men. In 2009, the American Cancer Society’s reported that there were 192,280 new cases of prostate cancer and 27,360 deaths in the United States. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in men, preceded by lung cancer and is the most common type of cancer for American men, besides skin cancer. It is estimated that one man out of every 6 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, and one man out of every 35 will die from it.

Many people still think that prostate cancer is slow growing and doesn’t necessarily kill you. While it’s true that in some cases it’s slow growing, prostate cancer is still the 2nd leading cause of death in men. However, the news is not all bad. More than 2 million American men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer are still alive today. The death rate is going down, because it is being found earlier, thanks to education and awareness. Prostate cancer is very rare in men younger than 40, but if there is a family history, testing is advised. Cancer incidence only increases with age. African-American men are at a high risk for it and so are obese men.

When it comes to prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment, there is no rhyme or reason, but science is getting closer to determining a definitive pattern. Tests like the PSA (prostate specific antigen) test or the digital rectal exam (DRE) screens for enlarged prostates. These scores should be monitored and tracked for velocity, or speed of growth and fluctuation. When prostate cancer is suspected, it is best confirmed by a biopsy and a subsequent “Gleason” score – an important marker for prostate cancer.

With regards to treatment, there a few options. Many men choose “watchful waiting” to determine if the cancer is growing. Radiation therapy, via seed implantation of radioactive material, or hormone therapy are other viable choices, but are not without harmful side effects. Radical surgical removal of the prostate is the most comprehensive, yet thorough, option. It is the only option that actually removes and cures the cancer. Once the gland is removed, we can determine the type, grade, range and stage of cancer.

Unfortunately, in Dennis Hopper’s case, his prostate cancer was not diagnosed until after it had metastasized. Prostate cancer often exhibits no symptoms, and in Hopper’s case, he complained of stomach pain and flu-like symptoms, which became a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer in 2009. Despite having undergone specialized treatment in California, the cancer spread to his bones and he lost the battle. Once the cancer goes beyond the prostate, there is little that can be done.

The take-away message is: get tested often, track your results and partner with your doctors on the best course of action. Prostate cancer is to be respected, if not feared, and because of that, we need to be proactive. What we don’t know can actually save lives.

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