In 2014, at the age of 48, Ben Stiller was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “At first, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was scared," the actor told Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show today.
Three months later, after having surgery to remove his prostate, he was found to be cancer-free and has been since then. He credits his survival to the controversial blood tests for prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a protein associated with prostate cancer, that his doctor suggested he start getting when he was 46.
On a post on Medium, Stiller described getting the diagnosis in detail:
“As my new, world-altering doctor spoke about cell cores and Gleason scores, probabilities of survival, incontinence and impotence, why surgery would be good and what kind would make the most sense, his voice literally faded out like every movie or TV show about a guy being told he had cancer… a classic Walter White moment, except I was me, and no one was filming anything at all.”
That moment came after Stiller and his doctors watched his PSA levels rise as he was tested every six months for a year and a half, followed by a physical exam, an MRI, and finally a biopsy that identified the cancer as intermediately aggressive.
Stiller acknowledges the conflicting information men hear about getting PSA tests. In fact, according to most official advice from the American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, as a Caucasian man under 50 with no family history of prostate cancer, he should not have gotten the test. The reason: Men often get anxiety-inducing false positive results and in many cases the prostate cancer detected is unlikely to cause death. Then there are the biopsies following positive (or false positive) results — a procedure that can cause erectile dysfunction and incontinence.
Recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine even suggests that men with prostate cancer who monitor their disease instead of getting treatment right away have the same low death rates after ten years as men who get surgery or radiation therapy, though their cancer was more likely to progress.
Stiller, however, is grateful that his doctor brought up the test, and that his cancer was found and treated before he had any symptoms.
“One of the main things I felt was I was really lucky,” Stiller told Stern. “As I learned more about prostate cancer, I learned that I was someone who had a case that could be treated. There are a lot of people who can’t because they discover it too late.”
“That’s when I went from being like, ‘Oh, poor me, I have cancer,’ to ‘Oh my god, I’m so lucky.’ ”