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Howard's Story

A revolutionary prostate cancer treatment keeps a man healthy when his wife needs him the most

Howard Griffin

Howard Griffin doesn’t speak in heroic tones about his battle with prostate cancer. At the time, he had other things on his mind. Most notably, his wife’s recent diagnosis of MS.

“We were walking in Toronto about six-and-a-half years ago,” says Howard. “Then all of a sudden, she wasn’t with me. She was on the ground.”

Back in Rochester, Howard’s wife Evelyn was put through a battery of tests. She complained of hurting inside. As is often the case with MS, though, a diagnosis was slow to come. While on a trip to South Carolina, Evelyn had another episode and her doctors in Rochester were able to put all the clues together.

Evelyn’s health deteriorated rapidly. “She went from walking, to using a cane, to using a walker, to a wheelchair in about a year-and-a-half,” Howard recalls. Soon Howard, a sixth grade teacher at Rochester’s School 30, would need a nurse to help daily with giving Evelyn the care she needed.

Howard’s primary care physician, Dr. Catherine Tan, was concerned that Howard was not watching out for his own health. So Howard agreed to have a physical. His PSA levels—an early indicator of prostate problems—were elevated. Dr. Tan expressed her concern and recommended another test 6 months later.

Howard had the follow up test. A few days later on a Saturday, Howard got a call from Dr. Tan at 7:30 in the morning. His PSA levels had jumped even higher. Dr. Tan had set up an appointment for Howard to see a urologist the following Monday morning.

After Howard’s exam, the urologist referred Howard to a surgeon for a biopsy of his prostate. That surgeon was Dr. Jean Joseph of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The news from Dr. Joseph was not good: Howard had prostate cancer. Fortunately, it had not spread. Surgery was scheduled to remove Howard’s diseased prostate.

Despite the diagnosis, Howard felt an immediate sense of comfort with Dr. Joseph. “He was very direct and personable,” Howard recalls. What Howard didn't realize at the time, though, was that Dr. Joseph was one of the most respected urologic surgeons in the country. The advanced surgery that Dr. Joseph would perform on Howard was only available at eight other hospitals in the nation.

On September 2, Howard’s prostate was removed with minimally invasive robotic surgery. Dr. Joseph inserted thin catheters into Howard’s abdomen through tiny incisions. A miniature camera was then put in through one catheter, while surgical instruments went in through others. Then, Dr. Joseph manipulated these instruments with the aid of a surgery robot, giving him precise control while he watched a magnified view on a high-definition monitor.

The benefits of this kind of surgery became evident to Howard soon after. He had his surgery on a Friday, and was released on Saturday. “I was in and out,” recalls Howard. “I had talked to some of my frat brothers who’d had this surgery the old way, and they had been in the hospital for 10 or 11 days.”

The faster recovery was critical for Howard’s life. He went right back to teaching and to taking care of his wife, whose health continued to deteriorate. After a number of serious bouts with MS and emergency trips to the hospital, doctors finally recommended more advanced care for Evelyn. Howard arranged for her to stay at Monroe Community Hospital, so she could get the daily care she needed while he worked.

Howard would see Evelyn on most days and then bring her home on weekends, when he would cook and give her his full attention. He would often get help from his children and people at his church. “The deacons would debate over who would come to my house,” Howard says. “They knew I cooked!”

Howard’s commitment to his wife, though, meant his attention to his own health faded into the background. As Evelyn’s health grew worse, Howard started missing his follow up visits with Dr. Joseph. Then, in August of 2007, Evelyn died. She and Howard had been married 37 years.

Evelyn’s funeral was in her hometown of Hartsville, South Carolina. Upon returning, Howard went right back to work at School #30.

Again, Howard’s doctor became concerned that he might be ignoring his own health. When Howard finally got his PSA levels checked–over nine months after he was scheduled—they were around a level of one. “I thought, ‘Good!’,” Howard recalls. “They were so much lower than they had been before.” But his number was not good at all: Since Howard no longer had a prostate, his PSA number meant that cancerous cells could be present.

A CT scan revealed that Howard had cancer cells in the former vicinity of his prostate. His long absence from his doctor’s care had probably given them the opportunity to grow. Howard was now referred to Dr. Ralph Brasacchio, a radiation oncologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“I started on radiation treatments,” says Howard. “Five afternoons a week, from March through May.”

Howard felt fairly healthy throughout the treatment. He was asked if he wanted to participate in a research study that was being done at the University of Rochester Medical Center to determine if exercise during cancer treatment could reduce the amount of fatigue. He eagerly signed up, and felt that the workouts kept his energy levels high.

Dr. Brasacchio team was also vigilant about Howard’s mental and emotional health. “They would talk with me, answer my questions. They didn’t leave me guessing about anything.” say Howard. “So long as you’re not dealing with the unknown, you can handle it.”

“They would ask me if I wanted to talk to a counselor,” Howard recalls. “But after talking to Dr. Brasacchio, I was always fine.”

On June 19, Howard had one final CT scan. There was no longer any sign of cancer.

Howard is thankful for his doctors and for the University of Rochester Medical Center. Not just for his own life, but for giving him the chance to take care of his wife in her final days.

“It was hard,” says Howard. “I don’t think it’s all sunk in yet. But I’ve realized I have a lot to live for. I have a good family and good friends. And I really miss being in the classroom, I really miss my students.”

While some of those students and friends are amazed at what Howard has been through, he only marvels at others. “I did go through a period of self-pity,” Howard says. “But when I saw what everyone else was going through, it put things into perspective. Now, I appreciate each day.”