As host since 2001 of MSNBC’s The Abrams Report, Dan Abrams, 38, a Columbia University-trained lawyer, has enjoyed success as a sometimes combative courtroom journalist. But for the past year, he’s kept one fight to himself: In July ’03 Abrams was diagnosed with testicular cancer—a potentially fatal illness that affects 8,000 men between the ages of 15 and 40 in the U.S. each year. After two surgeries, Abrams, who recently began sharing a New York City apartment with his girlfriend, Law & Order star Elisabeth Rohm, has been given a clean bill of health. In an effort to raise awareness about the disease, he spoke to PEOPLE’s Mary Green:
In June 2003 I was on vacation in Mexico, watching a silly comedy on television, Tomcats, in which a guy is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Three days before I’d noticed that my right testicle felt swollen. I’m not someone who visits the doctor a lot, but the movie’s description sounded just like what I had. I wasn’t really worried but thought I should have it checked out. On a friend’s recommendation, I went to see Dr. George Lombardi, an internist, who asked me a series of questions and checked my testicles. In a very calm, authoritative voice, he told me that with 60 to 70 percent certainty, I had testicular cancer.
I was absolutely stunned. I went for an ultrasound and CAT scan, and that same day Dr. Lombardi confirmed his diagnosis. He said, “You have cancer. I’m going to have to send you to a specialist, but it’s curable.” He had already set up an appointment for me at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. I was sitting there, stunned, looking for an out, to find some way it wouldn’t be true. I was battling to keep the tears from coming, but I remember having to wipe them from my cheeks.
It’s one of those things you don’t want to tell your folks, because you know how they’re going to feel. I was so freaked out; I didn’t have any choice. I remember talking to my dad and feeling like he was going to be so upset that somehow I had to pull it together. After that I just tried to focus on what to do next. I went right back to work and didn’t say anything to anyone, except my immediate boss. By then I was seeing a cancer specialist, Dr. Joel Sheinfeld. It’s still difficult for me to talk about the details, but on July 7, in a 45-minute surgery, he removed the cancer. I had two CAT scans, both clean, which meant that the cancer hadn’t visibly spread. But they performed a biopsy, and two days later, with my parents in Sheinfeld’s office, he told me the tumor had gotten into blood vessels around the testicle. I examine evidence for a living, so up to that point much of what I’d learned had been somewhat reassuring. But now, I remember thinking, “Come on, give me a break.” I guess up to that point, I still really didn’t feel like I had cancer. That conversation made me realize that I wasn’t going to automatically put this behind me. Now, I was really worried.
Dr. Sheinfeld told me there was a 50 percent chance the disease had already spread to my lymph nodes and beyond. Now, I had a choice: Do I wait and hope that it hadn’t spread or take action and have what’s called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection? That procedure—to remove all the lymph nodes in my abdomen—would be both diagnostic and preemptive. It would not only tell for certain if the cancer had spread but could also remove it. Rather than take a chance, I decided on surgery.
Cutting just below my sternum all the way to the pelvis, Dr. Sheinfeld removed 59 lymph nodes in six hours. As I was coming to, I remember him saying, “Everything went well,” and even in my weird, drugged-out state, I felt a dreamy, teary-eyed relief. The lymph nodes still had to be biopsied, and as it turned out, they were free of cancer. Even so, I’ve never regretted having the surgery. On the fifth day after surgery, as I was being discharged, the hospital elevator stopped on a floor with little kids who had cancer, and it put everything into perspective: I was walking out of the hospital—alive—and these kids were enduring more than I ever imagined.
Still, the surgery was tough. For weeks I needed help getting out of bed or off the couch and walked with a cane. I hadn’t really told anyone except my family and a few good friends—I just didn’t feel there was any need. I probably went back to work sooner than I should have, three weeks later. Viewers wrote in telling me how awful I looked—emaciated. They asked if I was anorexic or if I’d gone to some spa and lost 25 lbs.
Right after I went back to work, I read that a young local sportscaster, Sean Kimerling, had died of testicular cancer at age 37. I got a cold chill. I’d never met Sean, but he was a month older than me. We had the same agent, and he was in the same hospital I was, at the same time. But his CAT scan wasn’t clean, and mine was. I read that his father had said that if Sean had survived, he wanted to give back by educating young men about this disease. For the past year I’d been keeping my story a secret, but that article stayed with me. And this year, just before the anniversary of Sean’s death and my surgery, I reached out to his family and decided to go public.
Today, I feel really lucky. Friends helped me, and then there was Elisabeth. We started seeing each other months into my recovery, and she was incredibly supportive. I didn’t have to go through chemo, and I’m looking forward to the life I had always envisioned—career, kids, everything. These days, probably because of my job, I think more about terror attacks in New York City than I do about dying from cancer. But now that I’ve talked about it, people come up to me on the street and say, “Hey, I’m glad you’re okay.” I’d probably prefer that they say, “Hey, you’re the guy on that news show.” But if it means they’re going to do a self-check for testicular cancer, and maybe tell someone they love about it too, then it was worth it.