I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled, says Joel Nowak, who’s fighting Stage IV prostate cancer—and helping others do the same.
Joel Nowak, MA, MSW, is a bit of an expert when it comes to taking a cancer diagnosis in stride.
“Since 1998 I’ve been diagnosed with four different cancers—thyroid first, which I beat, then prostate, then the kidney and skin cancer, both of which I also beat,” the 62-year-old Brooklyn, NY, resident recounts. “I’ve definitely had my fair share of treatment!”
You might expect to find such a man feeling defeated or possibly angry. But there’s not a hint of bitterness when you ask him about his health.
“I made the conscious decision to choose happiness,” Joel says.
Joel’s original prostate cancer diagnosis came in 2001, after a routine PSA test.
Joel opted for laparoscopic surgery to remove the prostate. The procedure and recovery went smoothly, and all seemed fine until Joel’s PSA numbers took another jump in 2005.
After some scans, the bad news: The prostate cancer was back, and this time it was Stage IV—metastatic. He researched his options, and with the advice of his doctor decided to start with hormone treatments before doing chemotherapy. He is now on a new type of hormone therapy and it is still effectively keeping his cancer under control.
And he’s using his many cancer diagnoses to inspire him! After retiring from his job in commercial real estate two years ago, Joel has devoted all his time to cancer advocacy.
In addition to providing medical testimony at government hearings, running online and in-person support groups, speaking at conferences, running health fairs and writing about his condition, Joel heads up a program for Malecare, a nationwide organization that helps men dealing with advanced prostate cancer.
“I’m out every day walking my dog, Charlie,” Joel says. “I’m traveling to places like Iceland and Alaska with family, and constantly adding new things to my bucket list. There’s no telling what the future holds!”
Take charge of your cancer
Despite advanced prostate cancer, Joel stays positive. Here, the tips that help him stay strong and hopeful:
• Work closely with your doctor. “Ask questions, then ask some more,” Joel says. “Remember, your doctor is there to help you. You need to arm yourself against cancer with information that can help you and your doctor pick the best treatment available. That means knowing about new options and being honest about what treatments and side effects you can and cannot handle.
I learned that ultimately I was responsible for my own decisions, not my doctors—so I needed to help them as much as they have to help me. I have become an empowered patient—and that has made all the difference.”
• Accept the treatment you choose. “First, educate yourself about all the options out there that can treat your prostate cancer,” Joel says. “Then once you’ve weighed all the pros and cons with your doctor, don’t agonize over the choice you make. There is no right or wrong treatment, no right or wrong answer. If you choose a treatment and it doesn’t work, you can try another. Everyone is different, everybody is different and no one can tell you for sure how well something will work on your body.
Agonizing over regret is just going to make you miserable. Make your choice and move on. Each day is a new day and a new chance to make a different choice, once you have more information to base it on.”
• Don’t let statistics get you down. “Your first instinct is probably going to be to ask your doctor, ‘Doc, how long do I have?’ but the truth is he or she doesn’t really know. You could have many, many years left! Statistics only tell you a group trend; they don’t tell you anything about how well a treatment is going to work for you, an individual.”
• Anticipate treatment side effects. “The only treatment that doesn’t have side effects is no treatment, and that choice means dying from cancer,” Joel says. “Surgery, radiation, chemo, hormones—they all have different side effects. Research what they will be so you know and aren’t surprised. Then it’s much easier to power through them. And you can better plan for ways to deal with them, whether it’s by getting an antinausea medication prescription or something that offsets impotency.”