Shining spotlight on prostate cancer

KUALA LUMPUR: Having survived prostate cancer, Datuk Seri Nazir Razak (pic) is publicly sharing his experience in hopes that it will boost awareness on the topic.

It is also done in conjunction with the #onlymencan nationwide campaign against the disease.

Nazir is a trustee of the Universiti Malaya Urological Cancer Trust Fund, headed by Datuk Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, which is spearheading the campaign that kicks off the Men’s Health Awareness Month to be held every November from 2020 until 2024.

“I thought long and hard about talking about my experiences publicly. I finally decided that I have to do it. I think my doing this will encourage others to do the same and hopefully, also make the topic less taboo,” he said.

It was a chance medical checkup that led to him being diagnosed with the cancer in October 2018, when he wanted to purchase an insurance product recommended by his banker.

“My blood test showed that my prostate specific antigen (PSA) was high, so the doctor was suspicious and sent me for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that showed pictures of several tumours,” he said.

The final confirmatory test was a minor but invasive biopsy that confirmed the presence of cancer and showed that it had not spread beyond the prostate.

However, the biopsy also revealed that the prostate cancer grading Gleason score indicated the cancer was aggressive and likely to spread quickly.

“Being told based on my PSA and MRI that I probably had cancer was a big shock. Especially when I felt so healthy. But I quickly read up on it and knew that my survival chances were high, so long as it hadn’t spread,” he said, adding that he had no symptoms.

Although common symptoms of prostate cancer are largely related to urination, such as difficulty and frequency in urination, patients can be asymptomatic, as in Nazir’s case.

He had a robotic prostatectomy in February last year to remove the prostate, with complete recovery taking about four to five months.

As a prostate cancer survivor, Nazir believes that his role – aside from focusing on fundraising by leveraging his network as a former corporate leader – is to lead the #onlymencan campaign by telling his story to help others.

“We have to tackle the awareness problem head-on. People are shy talking about it. There is also a cultural aversion, especially among Malays, to talk openly about anything to do with sexual functions; even people with symptoms try to avoid seeing doctors,” he said.

This may be the reason why Malaysia has over 60% advanced stage prostate cancer detection, compared with the United States at about 20% and Singapore (25%). This means that many more Malaysian men die or suffer terribly from prostate cancer than necessary.

“Many men will get prostate cancer. In the US, one in nine men get it in their lifetime. But it is the most curable cancer, if you detect it early.

“In many cases you don’t even need invasive surgery; if it isn’t aggressive, there are other ways of containing it. But get it detected early.

“If you are over 50, have annual PSA tests. If you are younger, get a checkup if you have symptoms,” he said.

The core target of the campaign is to reduce the incidence of advanced stage discovery in Malaysia from over 60% to below 30% in five years.

For this inaugural year, it will focus on two key elements, which are public awareness and upgrading the knowledge of general practitioners (GPs).

Both aspects are closely linked as Malaysia is short of urologists, with one urologist per 250,000 people, compared with one per 50,000 people in Singapore.

Thus, he said the role of GPs in guiding patients was very important.

“This is just year one of a five-year programme. We will be very noisy for one month; the intensity will maximise our chances of getting our message across. The rest of the year, we will do more low-key programmes like GP training,” he said.

The same would be done over the course of five years, after which its achievements and effectiveness would be reviewed, he added.

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