Prostate Cancer Survivor Turned Health Advocate

close up portrait of Virgil Simons

Virgil Simons, 63, of Hackensack, New Jersey, says prostate cancer was "one of the best things that ever happened" to him. It gave him strength, helped him prioritize what's important in life, and made him want to give back. Cancer-free for 14 years, Simons now helps other men weigh their options and find support through The Prostate Net, a nonprofit patient education and advocacy organization he founded.

Simons found out he had prostate cancer in April 1995. He was 49, and busy with his family and a career as a business executive. "Prostate cancer wasn't even on my radar," he says.

A friend had suggested he get a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, and he decided to ask his doctor about it at his next regular checkup. His doctor told him there was no rush and that he could hold off, but Simons opted to get one anyway.

"I thought it made good sense to check it, especially at my age and being African American," he recalls.

Prostate cancer is rare before the age of 40, but the chance of having prostate cancer rises rapidly after age 50. Almost 2 out of 3 prostate cancers are found in men over the age of 65. Also, prostate cancer occurs more often in African American men than in men of other races. The reasons for that difference are unclear.

In High Gear

Simons' PSA level was 7.6. (PSA levels above 4.0 usually lead to further testing.) He went into high gear, researching and weighing his options.

"I must have had conversations with 10 different doctors. I looked at the disease from A to Z. I needed to get a broad view, to be as all-encompassing as possible," he says.

Simons' cancer had not spread outside his prostate, and in September 1995, he underwent radical prostatectomy, surgery to remove the entire prostate. Two months later, he was already back to work, though he struggled with side effects like incontinence for about 6 months.

"I leaned on my wife and friends, but really it's a war no one else understands. It was tough to verbalize my fears of incapacitation and death," Simons recalls.

During that time, Simons made his already healthy lifestyle even healthier. He continued to exercise moderately and made smart changes to his diet, adding more fruits and veggies and cutting back on fat.

And he began to think about his experience.

"I was a business executive with great insurance and doctors and a high degree of health literacy. What about folks who didn't have all that?"

Advocating for others

"Prostate cancer made me want to use the talents and skills I got from business to improve the quality of life of others. We need to encourage men to be responsible for their health because that control over health is control over life."

Virgil Simons

Simons was determined to use his background in business to help other men take control of their health and to educate them about prostate cancer. His organization focuses on reaching at-risk men to help them make informed decisions about their health. The Prostate Net also honors individuals and businesses that are working to address health disparities.

Simons is also on the board of the American Cancer Society Prostate Cancer Advisory Committee, which developed the revised prostate cancer screening guidelines issued in March 2010.

"Prostate cancer made me want to use the talents and skills I got from business to improve the quality of life of others. We need to encourage men to be responsible for their health because that control over health is control over life," says Simons.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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