Health And Wellness

How I Overcame Stage 4 Prostate Cancer And Became An Ironman

Photo: esudroff, Eric Kitayama | Canva, Courtesy Of Author
Author crossing the finish line at ironman triathlon, road behind him

Throughout my life, I’ve pushed myself to the limit, whether it’s been physically or professionally. If there was something ambitious, fun, or challenging to try, I wanted to be a part of it. And I usually was.

Following nearly 20 years in the U.S. Army, I retired from my military service to earn my graduate degree before starting my next adventure as the college president of the Institute of Construction Management & Technology in Phoenix.

After decades of this momentum, everything came to a crashing halt when I received a devastating diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer at the age of 41.

How I Overcame Prostate Cancer And Became An Ironman AthletePhoto from author

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Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in American men, behind skin cancer. While the disease is highly treatable when found early, I was diagnosed in an advanced stage and was given just months to live at the time.

I did some of my research and found that about one in five military veterans will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, a rate that is twice that of the general population. My motto is, “Never quit,” and after receiving my prognosis, this became my mantra that would help me through the long road ahead. 

My treatment in the months that followed was intense. I underwent a prostatectomy — an operation where part of my prostate gland was removed — followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and anti-hormone therapy. 

How I Overcame Prostate Cancer And Became An Ironman AthletePhoto from author

While this approach led to remission, one unfortunate side effect of my treatment was that I began to struggle with urinary incontinence, which is also known as bladder leakage and can happen after surgery for prostate cancer.

I came to learn that most people who have a prostatectomy experience bladder leakage in the first few weeks after their procedure, although it typically only remains a significant problem for about 1 in 10 patients

In this case, I was the unlucky one. I don’t shy away from a challenge, and I even completed an Ironman triathlon race during my chemotherapy and radiation. I dealt with bladder leakage throughout each leg of the race, which made it even more difficult, but I completed them nonetheless. 

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My problem with bladder leakage came to a head in Las Vegas not long after that race. I had been nominated for an ESPY Award for my athletic achievement and found myself on stage speaking in front of a big crowd — thousands of people — and that moment was the first time I experienced significant incontinence. I was wearing a light blue suit and my entire bladder emptied. I had to cover up with my notebook to ease the embarrassment as best I could.

The leakage was worsening so I started wearing adult diapers. Beyond the discomfort and embarrassment, I stopped doing many of the physical and daily activities that had defined my life up to that point. 

As devastating as my cancer diagnosis was, my struggle with bladder leakage was worse.

I wanted to be active, but I didn’t want to change in a locker room anymore. I stopped dating because of the embarrassment of wearing diapers. My life was falling apart.

I finally said to myself, “This is it. I'm done.” I realized I needed to do something to regain control. Together with my doctor, we discussed the various options to help with my incontinence. Since I’m an active, athletic guy, I sought out a solution that would allow me to keep doing the things l love. 

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Ultimately, we decided that an implant was my best option. The device I received, called the AMS 800™ Artificial Urinary Sphincter (AUS), is placed entirely inside the body, making it undetectable to others. It gently squeezes the urethra closed and prevents urine leakage, giving me more control over urination. This was the biggest game-changer for me. Not long after receiving the implant and having it activated, I was able to ditch the diapers. It was like a weight had finally been lifted. I cried tears of joy.

I was able to be myself again without the constant fear of leakage. I began dating again, met my future wife, and even competed in a half Ironman race in Hawaii nearly two years following the procedure. 

How I Overcame Prostate Cancer And Became An Ironman AthletePhoto from author

It’s sometimes hard for people to understand the impact of incontinence on so many aspects of daily life if they haven’t experienced it themselves. I find myself telling people that the day I married my wife was the best day of my life, but the day I received my implant was a close second.

I’m happy to say that I’m still cancer-free. My journey with prostate cancer had such a profound impact on me that I now dedicate considerable time to helping veterans in similar situations and raising awareness about prostate cancer treatment and its side effects, including urinary incontinence. 

There’s help out there, even if it takes effort to find the best way forward. I persevered and I got through it. And it’s my mission to let others know they can too.

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Steve Cooper is an Army veteran who shares his health journey with living through prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment to raise awareness and help others in similar situations.