Dr. Drew Reveals Prostate Cancer Battle: 'Without Surgery, I Would Have Died' (Q&A)

Dr. Drew Pinsky - 2010
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The HLN host talks to THR about the painful procedure, how he broke the news to his family and whether he's changed his mind on medical marijuana.

Oversharing is a way of life for Dr. Drew Pinksy, who encourages the patients he treats, the teens to whom he dispenses advice and the guests who appear on his HLN show to speak to him as they would to a, well, trusted doctor. So it’s surprising to learn that Pinsky has been harboring his own secret for some time. As he revealed on On Call with Dr. Drew on Sept. 24, he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The good news: the cancer was “low grade and localized,” Pinsky tells The Hollywood Reporter, and now post-surgery, is gone. The scary part was how close a tumor came to exacting serious damage in the center of his prostate. “If my urologist hadn’t pulled the trigger on the surgery, I would’ve died of prostate cancer, for sure,” he adds.

Dr. Drew has his wife Susan to thank for her vigilance and pestering. Noticing that he had been sick quite often in 2013, she encouraged him to go in for a closer look. Wouldn’t you know, even doctors dread going to see the doctor. “Doctors are the worst patients,” Pinsky says with a laugh. “Men are terrible patients too. It’s like asking for directions, I won’t do that either. It was so ridiculous. … Listen to your wives, gentlemen!”

The eternally optimistic Dr. Drew can laugh about it now, but for two weeks in late June and early July, after he had the painful procedure at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, he was of a different mind. “The surgery is brutal,” he says. “I don’t recommend it as a pastime. It risks incontinence, erectile dysfunction. … It’s a big one and took me a couple months to recover, but I’m completely back now.”

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In truth, the admitted workaholic only took two weeks off, but slowed down his insane schedule somewhat by bringing Loveline duties home (an ISDN line was set up to patch him into the syndicated radio show’s broadcast). “In retrospect, it’s remarkable I did,” he adds. “I mean, I was out of it. But after a horrible ten days, I kind of limped back.”

In typical Dr. Drew form, he hardly missed a beat. Now confident that the worst is behind him, he’s talking about his experience, appearing on The Dr. Oz Show Sept. 25 and revealing the news to his HLN audience on Sept. 24, a day after speaking with THR.

First, how are you feeling?

Really good, actually. I’m running again, working out.  

How did you first come to discover the cancer?

My wife first insisted I go get a physical. She was like, “You’ve been sick a lot lately. Something’s wrong. I’m going to make you see an internist.” So, I get a physical and my prostate-specific antigen – or PSA – had climbed all of a sudden. It was still normal, but it climbed. Now, people debate whether we should even be measuring the prostate-specific antigen, but it was my position of judgment that it should happen. It was also his judgment that we should do a little more looking around. So, he sent me to a urologist who said, “No big deal, it’s got to be prostatitis. I’ll treat you for prostatitis.” But, it didn’t go down. So again, his judgment was, “I think we need to do a biopsy.” … And lo and behold, cancer.

What came next?

Because it was low grade and well-localized, I knew I didn’t have to rush to do anything. This was a couple years ago, and I knew eventually I had to have a prostate surgery, but I thought, “Maybe I’ll do it next summer.” I eventually went into an active surveillance program at Tower Urology Group at Cedars where they biopsy you on a regular basis, but the whole while, I had a little more volume of tumor than it should be. Even though it hadn’t spread anywhere, it was still more than usual. After a series of biopsies, this June, my urologist, Dr. Stuart Holden, was like, “Okay, it’s go time.” It was his intuition. It wasn’t anything explicit, but the tumor was heading for the surface. We didn’t know that with the biopsies, but a few more months, it would have been out. So, it was timed just right. If he hadn’t pulled the trigger on the surgery, I would have died of prostate cancer for sure. These are guidelines out there. Let your doctors use their judgment.

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What was the surgery like?

Not fun [laughs]. It’s a big one. It used to be three weeks in the hospital for that procedure, now it’s done with a Da Vinci robot and you’re out the next day.

Any chemotherapy or radiation?

No. If [the tumor] had gotten out of the capsule, I would’ve needed radiation.

What kind of conversations did you have with your family? How did you break it to the kids?

We sort of told my kids in drips and drabs. Like, “I’m probably going to do the surgery – no big deal. It’s going to be fine.” When it came time to have it, two of my kids were across the country and one was stuck home. I was really like a full assist – that poor guy had to really help me out. For him, it was a little rough. My wife -- again, I gave her the, “Oh, it’s a low grade tumor. These are no big deal.” And then slowly revealed the details as time progressed. When it came time for the surgery, I knew what I was getting into, clearly. For her, it was more of a black box. She was more concerned that our relationship would be disrupted. We have an intense, good physical relationship, and she was fearful that it would be gone – what that would mean for us. She was way more freaked out than I realized at the time. I think she was hiding it because she’s not the one with the cancer. She didn’t really want to encumber me any further. You always forget about the caretakers. They carry a big burden in all this.

Were your bosses at CNN aware of what was going on?

Yes, they were very supportive. Jeff Zucker has been through some stuff himself. Scot Safon, who was head of HLN at the time, has been through a major surgery. They were extremely supportive.

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What kind of consideration did you give to revealing the news via Dr. Oz, People and THR?

I first thought I wouldn’t say anything. I definitely didn’t want to say anything until I was clear about what the course was going to be. I wanted to give a message about the active surveillance to men, and if my course of active surveillance turned sour, that would not be a very good prospective message. I mean, this is cancer – things can go bad with cancer. I was confident, but it’s not 100 percent ever with cancer. I still could have trouble. It’s a low percentage chance, but it’s there. So, I was tempted not to say anything until I was on the other side. … I’ve known Dr. Oz forever and it seemed like the right place. I trusted him to do it right and let me tell the story. He’s a peer, and I know he understands the issues I’m trying to promote here with health messages.

Did you have discussions with Dr. Sanjay Gupta?

I have discussed it with him. He and I were talking about doing something maybe -- it’s up to him, really.

Dr. Gupta’s CNN special on marijuana concluding with  him changing his mind about medical marijuana and advocating it. You’ve been somewhat anti over the years…

No. I am anti using my profession to promote a political agenda. I’m anti in the way medical marijuana has been promulgated in California. Every drug addict I treat has a prescription. So, nobody is being screened. Number two, you barely have to slow your car down to reach out to get a prescription for marijuana. It’s a miscarriage of my profession – that’s what I don’t like. It’s clearly been done to try to move towards legalization. And my thing is, then just legalize it! Don’t use my profession to promote a sham. By the way, I have prescribed marijuana before. When it’s appropriate, though it’s a pretty narrow frame in my world. Like I’ve given morphine to heroine addicts because my job is to reduce suffering, not to judge. That’s the part that I was sort of curious about with Sanjay -- he seemed to have a judgmental stance. … I’m very neutral. I don’t judge. I do have a concern in Colorado, though, that we’re going to see a Big Cannabis that’s very much like Big Tobacco. That’s not right. And that’s going to mean something to young people, at least.

Did your own cancer experience change your perspective at all? Did you consider what would happen if you had to go through chemo? Would you have thought about using marijuana to gain weight or an appetite?

I did. There are 30 other medications that are way, way better than pot. … There’s no such thing as a good drug and a bad drug. There’s just consequences for humans of their relationship with substances, and I try to be honest and clear about that.

When Angelina Jolie announced that she had preemptive preventive double mastectomy, it got attention on a global level…

I thought she absolutely did the right thing. Given today’s surgical techniques -- for that procedure particularly -- it was very smart. People argue that surgery is too aggressive, that it’s putting people in harm’s way. But again, that’s the moment where a physician and a patient have to make that call together. I experienced that for sure. I think a lot of men could really learn from my story, so I’m hoping they’ll listen carefully.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin