His name is Gary Gardner and he says that he “usually sits in the back row.” He’s not one of those people who stands up to lead the posse, until now. You see, Gardner has prostate cancer. It’s in remission now, but chances are, it could come back. His father died of the disease at 64. Gardner knew it was hereditary and that, basically, he probably had a target on his back, so he pushed his doctors to do something called a PSA test on a regular basis. They did, and in 2019, he was diagnosed with stage 1 prostate cancer. It went away, then came back. Now the once rather quiet Gardner is on a mission to form the Prostate Cancer & Awareness Support Group here in Sussex County.
A PSA test measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in a man’s blood. PSA is a protein produced by both cancerous and noncancerous tissue in the prostate, a small gland that sits below the bladder in males According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no specific normal or abnormal level of PSA in the blood, though in the past, PSA levels of 4.0 ng/ml or lower were considered normal. And in general, the higher a man’s PSA level is, the more likely it is that he will have prostate cancer.
“The disease is a silent killer and in the same vein, no one wants to talk about it,” he said. “Men just don’t do that, but we need to. That’s why I’m stepping out from behind the rafters and taking the initiative to make this support group a reality.”
Gardner carries around memories of two prostate cancer deaths with him. One is that of his father and the other was a neighbor named Doug Ernst, who died of an aggressive version of the cancer in December 2019.
The pain of not knowing
“Doug’s prostate cancer came on very quickly,” said his widow, Cindy Ernst. “He was having some strange symptoms, including having to use the bathroom very frequently, so he went to the doctor. What bothers me to this day is that neither of us recall the doctor having ever checked his PSA before. This time he did and it was high and it had spread to other areas. That meant it was too late to remove the prostate.”
Gardner likened the progression of prostate cancer to an apple. “In stage one, you slice open the apple with a knife and find a dark spot inside. In stage two, you peel the apple and find a dark spot on the outside of the apple under the peel. In stage three, you see a dark spot on the outside of the apple’s skin, and in stage four, you feel a soft spot on the outside of the apple: it’s left the apple and spread to other parts of the body.”
Doug Ernst lived knowing he had the disease for about five years. He tried about six different treatments but none of them worked. It was too advanced.
“People don’t understand,” Cindy Ernst said with another analogy. “The barn is already closed and the horse is out in the field.”
Her husband received an injection first and the PSA level went down to 2.0 ng/ml, but then it rose to four and then to seven. The doctors tried pills, chemotherapy and double chemo, and shortly before Thanksgiving of 2019, his PSA hit 600.
“He was in a lot of pain in his hip,” Cindy Ernst said, “They tried radiation to alleviate the pain.
This meant she had to leave her job mid-day, go home and get her husband into a wheel chair, get him into the car by herself and get him to his treatment and back. Then she had to go back to work.
On that Thanksgiving night, she said his legs started swelling and “weeping” some sort of poison that was coming out. By Saturday night, he couldn’t even stand on his own. She got him to the hospital and he passed away that Monday night.
“I’ll never forgive the hospital for not communicating with me,” Cindy Ernst said. “I’m a hospice nurse and they didn’t tell me how his body was shutting down and the pain he was in. No one would say, ‘Let’s just make him comfortable.’”
End of life drugs, such as morphine, were never administered.
Knowledge is key
With Gardner, he knew it ran in his family so he got tested. Gardner was diagnosed at age 57, in 2013, and he’s now 66. His is still in stage 1, and he’s undergone numerous treatments over the years as his PSA has elevated. He’s undergone a robotics treatment and has had his prostate removed.
“The doctors told me that if they didn’t remove it when I was 57, I would be dead by 66,” Gardner said.
Radiation is an option, but if a man has radiation, the prostate can’t be removed. If the prostate is removed and the cancer comes back (sometimes it hides in the tissue surrounding the prostate) then radiation can be utilized.
“My advice is for men to get their PSA checked and do your own research,” he said. “Talking to others is a huge help and Doug was a big help to me and I believe I helped him.”
Another neighbor, Don Howering, knew prostate cancer ran in his family. His PSA numbers went up in 2014, he had a biopsy done and there was no cancer. In July of last year, he had a MRI, as his numbers went up again. In March of this year, the numbers were up again, so a biopsy was done, and out of 18 samples harvested, two were positive for prostate cancer.
“Sure, you can keep an eye on it and watch and wait, but it doesn’t go away,” Howering said. “I was given choices but knew if I had radiation done first, I couldn’t have the surgery, so I had it removed.”
The Prostate Cancer Awareness & Support Group will kick off on September 13 at the Parish Community of Saint Kateri in Sparta. Men and women from all walks of life are welcome to attend, and there is no charge.
“Men don’t talk about these things,” Gardner said, “But they need to. There’s so much information to be shared. Our objective is to aid in the spiritual and mental healing of those men and their families who are dealing with the diagnosis, treatment and side effects of this disease. We want to bring together a group who have prostate cancer and are willing to share their experience.”
Howering and Cindy Ernst feel the group is going to be of extreme help.
“There are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your PSA and there are ways of dealing with the side effects that need to be shared,” Howering said.
“In the end, most men don’t want to talk about this; they need to,” said Cindy Ernst.
Gardner added, “Cancer at times does not have a delete button, only a pause or hold button.”
For further information about the support group, contact Gardner at 862-266-3259.