LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — September is National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, and we've been covering stories about conquering cancer— including a local pilot who felt he could have easily become a statistic if it hadn't been for a routine checkup.
Brian Erb has a lot to live for as a career pilot, husband, and father, but learning that a potentially deadly disease had invaded his body was not on his radar after a yearly physical.
"I had zero symptoms of anything when this happened. So it was really kind of a shock when I heard that I might have prostate cancer," he explained.
Brian's family doctor had ordered a PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, test as part of his blood work— something not all doctors do anymore.
"Then a few days later I get a call saying, hey, it looks like your PSA levels have increased since last year when we tested it," he added.
Eventually, Brian's case landed with surgeon Dr. Tim Langford, Chairman of the Urology Department at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
Dr. Langford said that not all family physicians elect to do the PSA screening, but in this case, it proved life-saving.
He added that knowing your risk number can help catch an aggressive form of cancer before symptoms begin to show— if found early, the survival rate is considered high.
"That's the one thing I could tell men, and Brian's probably 50 in midlife, is to get a baseline PSA, because if it is one or less, it virtually eliminates the risk of aggressive prostate cancer for the next 20 years to be honest, you don't have to get yearly screenings," he explained.
According to the CDC, in 2020 prostate cancer was at the top of the ten most prevalent new cases of cancer in Arkansas. Prostate cancer was also the second leading cause of cancer deaths in 2020 after lung disease.
Dr. Langford confirmed that men tend to put off screenings, partly to avoid the need for a biopsy and the side effects that can come with it. However, he pointed out that diagnostic tools have gotten much better these days.
"The problem we've had in the past is millions of men have had prostate biopsies. 75% of them are benign. Now we have tests like biomarkers and MRIs that can weed out the patients who have a benign biopsy and really focus on the ones who may have an aggressive cancer," he described.
The cancer is typically slow-growing, however, in some cases, men develop more aggressive forms. Unfortunately, this was also the case for Brian, who elected to have surgery to remove the cancer.
Ultimately though, Brian said the decision for treatment felt better than watching and waiting, and he's happy with where he is now.
"Overnight, only one night in the hospital, within a couple of days I am walking a few miles, slowly, but walking, so it was pretty painless all in all," he said.
The FAA automatically grounds a pilot with a medical condition like Brian's, but he stated that he's just been cleared to fly once again!
Now that his treatment is over, he said his view of the future looks as bright as it does from 30,000 feet above the ground.
Brian said he hopes his story will inspire other men to talk to their doctors about their risk for prostate cancer, while he admits it's not a conversation anyone looks forward to having.
As for the PSA prostate screening blood test, there are no set rules on when or whether to have it done. Cancer non-profits, the CDC, and national urology agencies do not offer set guidelines on testing for prostate cancer.
However, experts were all in agreement that men approaching age 50 with no known risk factors should at least have a conversation with their family physician to decide what’s best for them.