May 11, 1992 12:00 PM

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, 68, was luckier than most men confronted with prostate cancer. He’s married to the head of the American Red Cross. So when Dole learned he had the disease last December, his wife. Elizabeth, immediately called some of the top medical centers in the country to get the latest information about treatment. And President Bush sent over his personal physician. Dr. Burton Lee. Still, despite all the top-drawer attention, Dole found coping with prostate cancer to be a daunting ordeal.

He is not alone. Cancer of the prostate—a chestnut-shaped organ beneath the bladder—eventually strikes 1 in every 11 men. almost the same incidence as breast cancer in women. Yet many men are uncomfortable talking about the disease. Dole, however, went public in December, later discussing his cancer on such TV shows as the Today show and Larry King Live, even while turning his office into a sort of clearinghouse for prostate information. “It never occurred to me I could have such an impact.” he says. Currently running for a fifth term as a U.S. Senator from Kansas. Dole shared his experiences with correspondent Margie Sellinger.

MY HEALTH WAS GOOD BEFORE ALL this started: I was used to doing a lot of treadmill work, plus I had been watching my diet and slaying away from ice cream and that stuff I like most of the time I had only one symptom of prostate trouble—what they call “nocturia,” which means I had to get up a lot at night to go to the bathroom. I mentioned it to my doctor, but it didn’t bother him. He said stop drinking fluids after 6 o’clock.

Then last July, I went to the Capitol physician, R. Adm. Robert Krasner, for a routine physical. He did the digital rectal exam, which was normal, and took blood for what I later learned was the PSA [prostate specific antigen] test.

Normally, they call up a week later and say everything’s great. But this time Admiral Krasner asked me to come down to his office. He said, “It may not be anything. The PSA test is not totally accurate, but I think you ought to take it again.” I took it again in August and November. Then I had an ultrasound test and got a biopsy. A few days later Dr. Krasner called me down to his office again. The results were positive. I had cancer.

I’m a fairly strong person, but you’re sort of stunned. I said, “Are you sure you didn’t get my results mixed up with someone else’s?”

I hadn’t discussed the test with Elizabeth much, but she was the first one I called. She was a little bit—shocked by it all and then she wanted to get into it. She talked to Admiral Krasner and made a number of calls. And then, suddenly, I had to decide: Do I want surgery, or do I want radiation? I had the choice because it appeared to be caught early and the chances were good the cancer was still localized in the gland and hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes or bones.

I was just overwhelmed. First you don’t know anything about prostate cancer and then you get all this information and you hear about possible side effects like incontinence and impotence. You understand this is serious business and you do a lot of thinking and talking about it.

Eventually I decided on surgery and scheduled the operation for Monday, Dec. 16. I was supposed to go in Sunday night, but I hadn’t slept well. I was a little nervous. On Sunday I went out to the National Cancer Institute and talked to doctors about radiation and got confused again. So I called Dr. David McLeod, the surgeon, and said, “I’ve just got to have a few days to think this through.”

I was so relieved on Sunday that I didn’t have to go that night I watched Murder, She Wrote and slept pretty well. I made my decision the following day. I decided on surgery. I guess I was convinced by Dr. McLeod, who said, “I take it out, I put it in that jar over there, and it’s gone. You can forget about it.”

I went into Waller Reed on Tuesday night. They rolled me into the operating room about 7 the next morning. Because of the anesthetic, I have no idea what happened in there, except they did an operation called “nerve-sparing” radical prostatectomy, which is supposed to reduce the possibility of impotence. I was happy just to wake up four or five hours later.

I’d had some advice not to say anything about the cancer—I know men who have gone to the hospital for prostate operations under assumed names—but I wanted people to know I’d had a health problem and got it fixed. So the day “I the operation, I made a statement to the media. Almost immediately I was deluged with mail. A lot were get-well letters. But a lot were from men who wanted to know about the PSA.

What I discovered is that people are just hungry for information. After I got out of the hospital, I stalled doing interviews. I went on Face the Nation, and Bob Schieffer said, “How are you doing?” I said, “I feel pretty good.” And then I said to the men in the audience. ” ‘Get your PSA test.” A lot of men won’t go to the doctor unless their wives hit them over the head, which is crazy because about 34,000 die from prostate cancer each year. With early detection, many could be saved.

As for myself. I have been spared incontinence. I don’t know about impotence—it can take up to a year or more to know. Once my doctors assured me they’d gotten it all and my prognosis was excellent, I finally decided I would run again. I don’t know if it was harder deciding what to do about the prostate cancer or whether to run for another term. It was a pretty close call. You get cut up in either case.

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