A Quarterback Scores
Len Dawson will always be grateful that his wife Linda never misses the Sports section of the newspaper. It was there that she saw an ad stressing the importance of having a prostate cancer screening. In the same issue, she read a story about Senator Bob Dole's prostate cancer, and how early detection led to effective treatment.
Len admits that he was like most other men (80%, according to Senator Dole) who refuse to go to the doctor voluntarily. "I was quite busy, so I never would have gone in for the appointment."
Linda, a nurturer by nature, was used to keeping track of the logistics of Len's personal life, freeing him to function at a rigorous pace. The former quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs turned his unique perspective into a broadcasting career and was busy as a sportscaster at KMBC-TV in Kansas City and host of "Inside the NFL" on HBO. It was fall - football season. Knowing that time was of the essence, Linda made Len's appointment for a free digital rectal examination (DRE) and a prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test, then told him when to be there for the 15-minute exam.
"I went to the screening reluctantly because I didn't have any symptoms of prostate disease. I felt just fine," Len recalls. "I had gone to my physician for an annual check-up about 6 months earlier and received a clean bill of health." But Linda persisted, reminding Len that having a brother who had prostate cancer made him a prime candidate. Her persistence paid off.
The discipline which had earned him membership in the National Football League's Hall of Fame now helped him analyze the situation and make a decision.
The screening showed some abnormality. When further tests and a biopsy in mid-December, 1991, confirmed an early stage of prostate cancer, the Dawsons decided that a second opinion was warranted. During this limbo period, Len chose to keep the matter private to avoid being flooded by questions he was not prepared to answer.
"The holidays were very difficult," Linda admits. "It would have helped me to be able to talk about it, especially to my family and Len's family, but I understood. During that time, I'd burst into tears, and no one knew why. Eventually we had to let his employers know. They were very, very supportive."
After discussing treatment options, Len decided surgery was the best choice for him. The discipline which had earned him membership in the National Football League's Hall of Fame now helped him analyze the situation and make a decision. "Some men become depressed and rather emotional," Len says. "I asked, 'How serious is it?' and 'What are my options?' Then I made a decision from the information I had."
The 5 1/2-hour operation to remove the prostate was done in early 1992. Linda vividly remembers the days that followed. "I wish we had been better prepared. There is a down side, and I was given pamphlets explaining some of what to expect, but I was looking and not seeing. For example, Len had horrendous bladder spasms every 20 minutes, like labor pains. It was his bladder trying to reject the catheter. They continued even after he came home, until the catheter was removed. And it's tough for guys coming home with a catheter, especially someone like Len. Losing control and coordination can be a little frustrating. He didn't just want to get back to work, he wanted to get back and perform as an athlete."
True to form, Len's back in full swing now. He describes the procedure as being "uncomfortable." He also admits that "there was some pain involved" and that "it can have an effect sexually for a period of time." But due to the nerve-saving techniques which were used, these effects were only temporary.
The woman Len credits with his progress stresses the importance of bringing important issues like this out into the open. Linda encourages other women to learn what to look for and expect, then pass the information along. She's also a firm believer in being tough with men who are stubborn about seeking help.
How does a strong male ego take that sort of attitude? He expresses his feelings in one brief sentence. "I owe her my life."
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 1993.