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Survivor Turned Warrior Against Prostate Cancer

Article date: June 10, 2008

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"I'm a more compassionate person because of prostate cancer. I was used to giving orders. Now I'm not so much interested in giving orders as listening."

 

Norwood "Woody" Sloan — who spent 20 years in the Air Force and then worked for AT&T management for 20 years — never called in sick.

"My health was excellent," he says. "I never missed a day of work." So it came as a surprise to the Philadelphia native that right before his retirement from AT&T, he started experiencing problems. It was Christmas Eve, 1990 in Washington, DC. Sloan was driving on the Beltway to attend his holiday office parties and needed to pull over at every available rest stop. That's when he realized he had a problem. Sloan's family doctor sent him to a urologist, who ordered up a battery of tests, including a PSA blood test, bone scan and biopsy. At age 59, Woody was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As with many men with prostate cancer, there were no warning signs. "I never thought I would come down with cancer," he says.

Tough Decisions Ahead

The news of his diagnosis was difficult to take. "I handled it the way most men handled it," says Sloan. "I didn't want anybody to know about it. I was very upset." At the encouragement of his physician, he joined a support group outside Washington so he didn't have to face the process alone. He learned about different types of treatment options from other men who had firsthand knowledge. "Back in that day, in '91, most men would say, 'I want the cancer out of my body,' says Sloan. "I wanted to have it removed." He wanted to pursue surgery, but the cancer had already spread outside the prostate gland. He explored an external beam radiation treatment and elected to undergo 39 days of radiation, followed by a combination of hormonal therapies. The hormone treatment resulted in unwanted side effects such as weight gain and breast enlargement. "Worst of all, you had to deal with hot flashes, the same as any middle-aged woman," he says. Despite its discomforts, the treatment plan was successful. Woody has been in the clear for 17 years. For the first 8 years, he asked for his PSA to be checked every quarter and still gets it checked today. "It's good to listen to your doctor, but you have a say in what your doctor does," he says. "It's nerve-wracking to this day. You're always wondering."

'Let's Talk About It'

Early in his cancer experience, Woody took an active role in helping men cope with the disease, and raising awareness of it. When his support group facilitator left a year after Woody joined, Woody was asked to become the facilitator. He accepted the position because he felt it should be a survivor, rather than a nurse, who led the group. Woody also became active in the battle against prostate cancer. For 7 years, he served on the Education Committee of the Capital Area Prostate Cancer Network (CAPCAN). He has served on the American Cancer Society Regional Prostate Health Awareness Committee for 11 years. Woody was interviewed for a film called "Prostate Cancer: Are You at Risk?" featuring 3 men undergoing different treatments for prostate cancer. The film was a turning point for Woody, who spoke frankly about his own experience. That helped him cope, he says. Sloan stayed on as the facilitator for his support group for almost 10 years, until he left the Washington area. In 2001, he and his wife May decided to move to Middletown, Delaware, where they now reside. After the move, Sloan joined the Warriors Against Prostate Cancer at the Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. He is a volunteer who helps to educate men about prostate cancer. Woody says that helping other people has had a profound effect on him. He leads "Let's Talk About It," a program with the American Cancer Society that starts dialogues in the African-American community about why early testing is important. Because African-American men have a higher risk for prostate cancer than men of other races, American Cancer Society guidelines recommend they begin yearly screening with a PSA blood test and digital rectal exam at age 45. The same goes for men with a close relative (father, brother, son) diagnosed before age 65. For men at average risk, the Society recommends that doctors offer the tests after discussing the benefits and limitations of screening and allowing them to make an informed decision about whether to be tested, starting at age 50. "That's the one thing I find very rewarding," he says. "When you go into a group of men and you relate your story and how you survived, then they are very willing to talk about it."

'You Have to Listen'

Woody emphasizes the need for communication and education. "My mother didn't understand the danger I was in," he says. "My father had prostate cancer, but none of the children knew about it." After talking with relatives, he found out that his father's 2 brothers, 2 of his mother’s brothers, and several first cousins also had prostate cancer. After his diagnosis, Woody changed his lifestyle dramatically. To remove fat from his diet, he followed what he calls the "3 B's": bake, boil and broil. He worked on his exercise regimen, taking swimming and water aerobics classes. He still takes water aerobics with other seniors 3 days a week. Sloan also took steps to reduce stress in his life, including moving to Delaware. His house looks out on a golf course, even though he doesn't play. "It's peaceful," he says. "The green scene reduces my stress level." He enjoys spending time with family, including 4 daughters and 4 grandchildren. Surviving prostate cancer has changed his attitude on life. "Under a military career, you're macho," he says, "You can withstand anything. If you hurt a little bit, shake it off. Well, all of that's changed. I am no longer that macho person. I'm a more compassionate person because of prostate cancer. I was used to giving orders. Now I'm not so much interested in giving orders as listening." He adds: "And that's a big part of being able to convince people to do something about it. You have to listen."