Golf legend Arnold Palmer was one of America’s greatest athletes but he also took great pride in educating his legion of male fans – known as “Arnie’s Army” – about how to beat prostate cancer.
On Sunday, Palmer, 87, died in a Pittsburgh hospital from complications due to cardiovascular disease. But for nearly 20 years, ever since he had been diagnosed and successfully treated for prostate cancer, he spread the word about how early detection had allowed him to survive the disease.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men,and the second biggest cancer killer. Each year, about 180,890 men in the U.S. are diagnosed with prostate cancer, and an estimated 26,120 men die from it.
When prostate cancer is diagnosed early, the survival rate is 98 percent. But that figure plummets to 28 percent once the cancer is spreads outside the prostate.
Palmer was diagnosed with the disease in 1997, and underwent immediate surgery and radiation. Soon he was back on the golf course, winning championships and taking every opportunity he got to spread his prostate cancer message.
He also became a philanthropist in the fight against cancer, lending his name and financial support to several medical institutions, including the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif., and the Arnold Palmer Pavilion in his hometown of Latrobe, Penn.
Even before he was diagnosed, Palmer’s life had been changed by cancer, when one of his daughters was diagnosed with breast cancer. (She is now cancer-free.)
Then, while Palmer was undergoing cancer treatment, his wife, Winnie, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She would die two years later.
In his frequent interviews about the disease, Palmer credited his successful treatment to his doctor, who was a big believer in early detection.
At his doctor’s urging, Palmer began getting annual physicals in his 30s and undergoing regular protein-specific antigen tests to monitor him for cancer.
Today, the PSA test is controversial when used as a screening test for early detection of prostate cancer because it can result in false positives. But Palmer had no doubt it saved his life. He had undergone a few PSA tests, but, in 1997, the result indicated the presence of cancer.
“When I first heard the word cancer, I didn’t want to say it out loud,” Palmer had said, recalling his conversation with his physician 14 years ago in Everyday Health.
“I was given numerous choices about how to treat the cancer, and I chose the radical option of removing the prostate completely.”
That surgery was followed by seven weeks of radiation. Taking decisive action against prostate cancer “was probably the best thing I ever did,” Palmer added.
Even today, surveys show that 50 percent of men don’t get annual checkups, so Palmer made this the cornerstone of his message.
“Consistency is the key. Once you start going, then you will go automatically. And good doctors will make you aware that you need to see them [regularly],” he told Superintendent, a magazine for golf superintendents.
He was 82, and had just returned from his own annual physical at the Mayo Clinic.
Raising cancer awareness was one of Palmer’s greatest achievements, and, as he writes in an excerpt in Esquire from his forthcoming autobiography, “A Life Well Played.”
“I am lucky to have survived cancer, but not so lucky to have not felt the sting of tremendous loss in my life due to the disease,” he said. “This is a fight that I will wage until my last breath, for Winnie, for my family, for everyone who must confront this awful disease.”
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Read more: Arnold Palmer Devoted Life to Prostate Cancer Awareness