An insignificant mole didn’t seem like anything to be concerned about.
Matthew Long was a healthy, physically fit 35-year-old. An officer for the Martinsville Police Department, he was strong enough to tackle any challenge that came his way.
But when his doctor called in the middle of a training run, confirming that the mole was skin cancer, all of his exercise, his strength training and his eating right didn’t matter.
Story continues below gallery
“I remember getting off that treadmill and setting up in the corner of the gym for 45 minutes just crying like a baby. What was I going to tell my wife? What was I going to tell my kids?” he said. “That first time someone tells you you can die, you don’t swallow that very well.”
Nearly half of all men are at risk of developing cancer some time in their lives, with nearly 25 percent of men likely to die from it. So health officials are placing a greater emphasis on prevention and early detection.
The odds of developing cancer can be reduced with lifestyle changes such as more exercise and better diet, doctors say. Men should regularly get a physical and go through the necessary screening tests to catch cancer before it becomes too serious.
“People are becoming more conscious about what they have to do, but there needs to be more work,” said Dr. Pablo Bedano, a hematologist and oncologist with Community Cancer Center South. “These are the important ways that we’re going to find the problems early.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, 43 percent of men will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in their lifetime.
Almost twice as many Indiana men were diagnosed with skin cancer compared to women, according to the Indiana State Cancer Registry. For every 100,000 residents, 21 men developed the disease. In women, the rate was 14.3 per 100,000 people.
The registry also revealed that men had higher incidences of lung, colon and rectal cancer. Indiana averaged 3,954 cases of prostate cancer each year from 2004 to 2008.
Bedano is seeing improvement in awareness of men’s health. Fewer men are smoking, resulting in a gradually decreasing number of cancer incidences.
“That’s the most important thing they can do in terms of cancer prevention, since smoking is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, neck cancer, kidney cancer and those things,” he said. “It’s something that can be done to easily prevent it.”
Diet and exercise are also vital. Obesity has emerged as the second-largest contributing factor to cancer incidences. Increasing physical activity and trying to lose weight are important ways to prevent cancer, Bedano said.
Drinking less alcohol, as well as eating less meat and animal proteins, can also reduce the risk.
“More men are attempting to follow the recommendations, but they become sidetracked by supplements and these secondary things that claim prevention instead of looking at diet, exercise and smoking,” he said.
Long was diagnosed with melanoma in 2014. His wife noticed a strange-looking mole on the lower-left side of his back and wanted him to go to the doctor to have it looked at.
He had never really paid attention to his skin and did not see a dermatologist regularly for checkups. The doctor immediately identified it as melanoma.
A surgeon removed an area around the mole in case the cancer cells had spread and offered to do a lymph node biopsy to ensure that the cancer hadn’t spread in his body.
“Being a father of two, 35 years old and married, I had a lot of time to live. I decided that wasn’t an optional biopsy, it was a mandatory biopsy,” Long said.
Tests revealed that the cancerous mole had drained to lymph nodes under his armpit and in his groin. Biopsies showed that there was no cancer in his groin, but that the lymph nodes in his armpit were cancerous.
Recommended to Bedano at Community Cancer Care South, Long started taking interferon to eliminate any remaining cancer in his body. The proteins jolt the body into creating an immune response to diseases such as cancer.
A bad reaction to the drugs — including anxiety, loss of appetite and depression — set back his progress for about six weeks. Bedano took him off the interferons and recommended he see a therapist to counter the effects of it.
That was hard for Long.
“I’ve always had confidence and control. The job that I’m in, I’ve always helped others do everything else,” he said. “Now, for the first time in my life, other people were doing that for me. It wasn’t sitting well.”
Most of the cancer patients Bedano sees at his office at Community Cancer Care South are in the 50s and 60s, which seems to be the time when men are most likely to develop cancer.
That’s what make it so important to do the tests such as colonoscopies, prostate exams and skin cancer screenings. Doctors also stress going to the doctor when something on your body doesn’t look right or feel right, Bedano said.
Donald Pedigo, 64, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last year as well. He was having unusual pains in his stomach and occasionally had trouble swallowing. After waiting a few weeks to see if it would go away, he went to see a doctor.
An endoscopy — consisting of a camera on a tube snaked down Pedigo’s throat — showed a tumor had become entwined with his esophagus.
“I woke up after that and was sitting on the edge of my bed. The first and only thing I remember the doctor saying was, ‘You have cancer, and it’s bad,’” he said. “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
The tumor had progressed to Stage IV, and was aggressively growing. His initial doctor told him there wasn’t surgery or much that they could do, and Pedigo was given six to eight months to live.
He went for a second opinion to see Bedano, who with a team of other Community doctors laid out a plan of radiation, chemotherapy and protein therapy to try and reduce the size of the tumor.
The treatment worked, and Pedigo’s cancer had started getting smaller. But as a side effect, he was diagnosed with what is likely pulmonary fibrosis. It appears that radiation and chemotherapy treatment scarred the tissue in his lungs.
The past year has taught Donald Pedigo to take his health into his own hands.
He’s started paying closer attention to his diet and getting more exercise. He’s given up meat, dairy and avoiding processed food in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables.
He has seen a natural medicine specialist for recommendations on supplements to help prolong his health. He had taken close to 20 different supplements to help bolster his immune system.
Pedigo is currently taking an experimental drug created specifically to attack esophageal cancer.
“I wasn’t supposed to be alive. But I’m alive and feeling good. That’s what’s important,” he said.
Long, too, has tried to be more aware of his health. He slathers himself and his kids in SPF 50 sunscreen and keeps bottles of it in each of their cars.
He’s diligent about applying it every morning, even if he doesn’t know he’s going to be in the sun.
“I’ve got all of my family going in now to get checked, I’ve got friends I’m trying to get in. It’s one of those things I didn’t worry about before, so now I take precautions,” he said.
Long also has started seeing a dermatologist on a regular basis, six times a year, in addition to seeing Bedano.
“It’s scary. There are days I go into the dermatologist and pray they don’t find anything,” Long said. “But I can’t sit around and always think the negative is going to happen, so I have to get in there.”
- Exercise 20 minutes, at least three times each week.
- Protect yourself from the sun with sunscreen, hats and appropriate dress.
- Watch your fat intake, making sure it’s no more than 30 percent of your caloric intake.
- Eat two to three servings of protein (meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs or nuts) and dairy products.
- Eat six to eleven servings of grains.
- Eat three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruit.
- Be aware of your alcohol intake.
- Perform a testicular self-exam.
- Perform an oral cavity self-examination, looking at your gums, teeth, lips and tongue for potential problem areas.
- Perform a full-body examination for unusual moles or other skin conditions.
- Be aware of your blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as your weight.
- Have a dental checkup once or twice a year.
- After age 50, have a physical examination by your physician, a digital rectal exam, a prostate-specific antigen test.
- Have a fecal occult blood test after the age of 50.
- Get a yearly flu shot.
- For men over the age of 20, have a full lipid profile test for cholesterol and triglycerides every five years.
- Get a physical every three years once you turn 30, and every two years after age 40.
- After age 50, get a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, a colonoscopy every 10 years and a double-contrast barium enema every five to 10 years, or as recommended by your physician.
— Information from Community Health Network