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Richard Petty – Winning the Biggest Race of All

by Cindy Phiffer

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, July/August 1997.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Petty may have won $8 million over the span of his racing career, but talking to him is less like interviewing a high-profile athlete and more like talking to a favorite uncle. In a voice that’s best described as a gravelly southern drawl, Petty talks about how his prostate cancer was diagnosed.

“I go for a yearly check-up because of my racing deal, you know what I mean?” Without waiting for an answer, he goes on. “My PSA has always been 2.4 or something like that, and all of a sudden it was 4.8, so they brought me back and checked everything. My doctor sent me over to Dr. Davis, and he did the biopsy that showed a little cancer.”

Petty was given several options for treatment. “I guess they had three or four different ways of doing it,” he says. “They had some pills, and they had the radiation, and then they had this operation, and so we went through everything, and basically what I got out of it was that the operation was the most sure way of getting rid of it for me, and so that’s what I did.”

As with most newly-diagnosed cancer survivors, Petty was surrounded by family and friends. When asked if they were concerned, he chuckles and says, “I’ve been in a lot of different situations before.” Pausing for a moment to let this understatement sink in, he continues, “I just told ’em what was going on. The doctor said he could get rid of it, so it wasn’t a deal where they went into Panic City. I told them right up front everything was going to be okay. I’ve been through other operations and several wrecks and survived, so they didn’t think twice about it not working.”

The support of family and close friends means a lot to Petty. With a note of warmth in his voice, Petty says that it’s a big help, “when you’ve got your family behind you and they believe in what you’re doing.” Although the decision was in his hands, he values the fact that they never wavered in their encouragement. “They all stood by me and said, ‘Hey, go for it,’” he recalls “so that’s what we did.”

Well-known for his relationship with his fans, Petty has been surprised at how many of them have been touched by cancer. “I did not realize that there were that many people out there that’s already had this operation, or had it (prostate cancer) or just the people I talked to that went to get checked,” he says, with a note of amazement in his voice. “You went to races every week and see thousands of people, and it just surprised me that there was that many people that their brother or their daddy had the operation or was gettin’ ready for it or had the symptoms. I didn’t know it was that common a deal.”

“I just went on with my life. I kept figuring what I was supposed to be doin’, next week and next month, and went on with business. Then, once the time came, I went in the hospital and I did my thing and I came out and I started goin’ again.”

“I had a lot of people come and talk to me about it, and I told ’em what my experience was and they weren’t scared then to go and get checked,” he says. “I guess they’d thought about it, but they were worried about goin’ an findin’ somethin’. I say, ‘Go do it and get it over with, and then it’s behind you.’ Of course, once they’d seen me, and I was out of commission I guess for about a week before I could get up and start movin’ around, you know, go back to the shop and go to the races, they didn’t mind so much.”

Since making his racing debut in 1958, Petty has had his share of close calls, but he always manages to come out right-side up. When asked about the biggest challenge cancer has presented, he answers in his usual matter-of-fact manner. “Well, I guess in my mind, I never looked at it from that perspective,” he says. “In my occupation, I’ve been through a bunch of stuff. I had half of my stomach taken out in ’78. I had to have some gallstones taken out. The doctors had been in there before with no complications, so that gave me confidence that the boys that were workin’ on me knew what they were doin’.”

This trust, coupled with his state of fitness, was a winning combination. “I was fortunate in that I was in good health,” Petty admits. “I was 58 years old and was able to bounce right back. The only downside of this thing, was I had to wear a little ‘ketchpan,’ and that was a little inconvenient, but I started getting’ my control back and there’s no sweat from now on.”

Two-and-a-half years past his original diagnosis, Petty is back on track. “I went back three months after the surgery and three months after that, and now I go back every six months,” he explains. Despite his success, he doesn’t claim to know what is best for anyone else. “All I can tell ’em is my experience,” he says. “I just went on with my life. I kept figuring what I was supposed to be doin’, next week and next month, and went on with business. Then, once the time came, I went in the hospital and I did my thing and I came out and I started goin’ again.”

However, there is one piece of advice that Petty isn’t shy about giving. “I tell people, ‘Don’t worry about it; go do it’ because I’ve talked to a lot of people and they say, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do.’ I say, “Go do it and get it over with, and then it’s behind you.’ My deal is, you pay now or pay later. Go ahead and pay now and get it over with so you don’t have to pay later, because if you mess around with it, it’s goin’ to catch up with you. The quicker you get rid of it, the better chance you’ve got to keep it from spreadin’ and then you can go on with your life.”

This man, whose trademark profile (the familiar hat, mustache and sun-glasses) is recognizable around the world, has plenty of reasons to stay healthy. Besides holding many records including the NASCAR record for 513 consecutive Winston Cup races and an international racing record for 41 500-mile victories, he works ceaselessly for a variety of charitable efforts.

In 1992, Petty’s generosity was acknowledged with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest U. S. civilian award. With enough trophies to fill a stadium, this might have been received as just another prize. Not so for Petty. “It means a lot to me!” he admits. “That was the highest award, definitely, that I’ve ever received.”

Richard Petty is a racing legend in his own time. Retirement for him has meant anything but retreat. Although he no longer competes behind the wheel, his association with STP celebrates its 26th anniversary this year. This is the longest continuous sponsor relationship in auto racing, an admirable feat in any arena.

What has enabled Petty to keep his eye on the road and a steady hand on the wheel? The same thing that helped him face prostate cancer. “The fear is not in doing it,” Petty says explaining why he does not flinch at harrowing circumstances. “It’s the fear of not doing it.”

This North Carolina native has been around the track a few times. His approach to his own cancer diagnosis is with the same level-headed focus that merited 200 career wins, and the plain spoken attitude that has earned him a permanent spot in the hearts of race fans the world over.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 1997.