Firefighter Fighting a Different Kind of Battle
Recovering from Prostate Cancer, Working to Educate Others about Risk
With 28 years of firefighting service to the Virginia Beach community, 57-year-old Master Firefighter Wayne Sandlin knows he still loves his job. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, he chose the treatment option that -for him - represented the best chance he would be able to return to his normal, very active, life: the da Vinci laparoscopic radical prostatectomy.
And get him back to his life it did: He had the surgery at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on January 4, 2007, went home from the hospital the next day, and was back on full duty within the next month and a half.
"My surgeon (Dr. Robert Given) called my recovery almost miraculous," Sandlin recalls. Although most patients who choose this procedure recover faster than those who have traditional open prostatectomy, Sandlin's recovery was even better than average. Diagnosis and a decision
A radical prostatectomy is an operation to remove the entire prostate and any nearby tissue that may contain cancer. It can be done as open surgery through a large incision, or as laparoscopic surgery through several very small incisions using a tiny camera and special instruments to remove the prostate. Laparoscopic surgery offers patients faster recovery and less blood loss than traditional surgery.
In the last several years, robotic-assisted laparoscopic surgery procedures have become available, including the da Vinci robot.
Each year as part of his annual physical, Sandlin got his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels tested. Although he got up to go to the bathroom one to two times a night, Sandlin experienced no discomfort or any other symptoms of anything unusual.
But in April 2006, his PSA level had risen from 2.9 to 4, and he was sent for a biopsy. The diagnosis came back positive for prostate cancer.
"Utterly shocked and horrified," Sandlin says he remembers feeling like he had been handed a death sentence. But after meeting with his surgeon, Dr. Given, he felt better.
"My wife and I liked Dr. Given right off the bat. He reviewed our options with us, says Sandlin. His cancer had a Gleason score of 6, which is the "middle of the middle," he says. Prostate cancer cells that have a low Gleason score grow slower than cells with a higher score.
Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in American men, other than skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates about 179,300 new cases this year and about 37,000 men will die of this disease. Fortunately, prostate cancer can be treated successfully if found early enough (the five-year survival rate is almost 100 percent), but often times the treatment can cause side effects such as impotence and incontinence.
"Which option you pick depends on your health, age and marital situation," Sandlin explains. "Kimberley, my wife, and I discussed our decision extensively, because some side effects could affect our marriage (such as impotence).
Because of the benefits of minimally invasive surgery (such as a faster recovery and fewer chances of side effects), Sandlin chose the da Vinci® laparoscopic radical prostatectomy. Factors in recovery
Sandlin's surgery - a success from all accounts - allowed him to return to his active job as a full-time firefighter within six weeks. He experienced minor incontinence, but it dissipated after approximately two to three weeks. Two months after his surgery, he returned to a favorite pastime of his — playing ice hockey.
"I'm confident I'm cancer-free." Sandlin says. "My surgeon and the surgery saved my life. If I hadn't had my prostate removed, the chances are good that within 10 years, the prognosis wouldn't be so good."
Four months after the surgery, Sandlin's rehabilitation is going better than could be expected, he says. He attributes that to his physician, the type of surgery he chose, and, the biggest factor - his wife.
"I'll say this to any male that goes through this: Your spouse has got to be a part of the decision and the aftermath," Sandlin advises. "It's crucial that both of you agree on the treatment, as the healing process affects both your lives." Educating firefighters
The fire department in Virginia Beach employs 450 uniformed firefighters, and Sandlin says he received a tremendous amount of support from his extended family. For that reason, Sandlin has taken on a different type of battle: educating fellow firefighters about their increased risk for some types of cancer.
Environmental health researchers have determined that firefighters - who may inhale or absorb through their skin carcinogens while battling fires and heavy smoke conditions and during overhaul operations - are significantly more likely to develop four different types of cancer (prostate, testicular, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma) than workers in other fields (For more information, visit firefightercancersupport.org
Sandlin says he strongly encourages firefighters to wear breathing apparatus during the overhaul process (after the main fire is out, firefighters enter the building to hose everything down, ensure there are no hidden spot fires, as well drag smoldering items out). There are many carcinogens released in to the air during the smoldering stage.
"God has given me another chance to do this," he says. "I know what I went through, and I want to make sure others don't have to go through that. It is my new purpose in life."