How I Beat Prostate Cancer
(With a Little Help from My Wife)
Joe Torre’s illness was a wake-up call to millions of men who don’t
believe this disease can strike them out.
Editor’s Note: For his first 59 years, Joe Torre seemed to live a charmed life. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he dreamed of playing professional baseball. In 1960, at the ripe young age of 20, he broke into the major leagues and by 1971 he was a Most Valuable Player. His next dream was to be a big-league manager and he accomplished that at age 36 in 1977 without spending a day managing in the minor leagues. In 14 of the next 19 years, Torre managed three different teams until he joined the New York Yankees in 1996 and promptly led them to a World Championship. Under Torre’s leadership, the Yankees won three more titles in the next four years.
During that period, it seemed the only chink in Joe Torre’s armor came in March 1999, when at age 58 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Eight days later, he underwent successful surgery and was back managing the Yankees by June.
In 2000, Joe Torre and his wife, Ali, told the Johns Hopkins Prostate Cancer Bulletin how they dealt with their traumatic situation. It is reprinted with permission from Medletter Associates.
Unfortunately, heart disease runs in my family; my brother Frank received a heart transplant in 1996. So in February 1999, just like I do every year, I took my series of medical tests. Only this time, my cardiologist told me that my PSA [prostate specific antigen] level appeared to be a bit elevated and I should have it checked out again when I got down to Florida for spring training, which I did. My PSA came back at 4.5 ng/mL and my free PSA was extremely low. A biopsy that was performed shortly after came back positive. I was told that I had an aggressive cancer.
Up until the final biopsy test result came in, my wife, Ali, was in her own form of denial, in that she hoped that I didn’t have cancer. But once she knew for sure, she was on my case. She is the one who did all the researching and came up with a written list of questions we needed answered by the doctor to help us in the tough decision-making process. By the time we eventually went to see the urology specialist in St. Louis, we were extremely well prepared for our appointment.
I was numb when I got the cancer diagnosis and I don’t know what I would have done if Ali hadn’t been there to get me through it all. It later became very clear to me that you need a spouse or a good friend to be there for you, to keep you on level ground and to give you hope. Otherwise, saddled with the cancer diagnosis, it becomes so easy to think of your cancer as some sort of a dark hole, and that there is no way out for you.
A Valuable Partner
Ali and I are very lucky to have each other. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to her than I did after I was diagnosed. One of the reasons we want to talk about the “couple effect” of prostate cancer is to encourage men not to shut their spouses out after they’ve been diagnosed but instead to work with them in fighting this disease. Your wife is your partner in the truest sense of the word. After my own diagnosis, I found that I began thinking a lot of negative things. Talking about it with Ali, however, made it less morbid. And then there was a tremendous amount of medical information to absorb. A lot of it was conflicting and confusing. But I knew if I missed something or didn’t really understand it, Ali would be there to talk it over with me.
So many people have asked me how I dealt with my prostate cancer. Well, I knew for sure as a baseball player for 17 years and then as a manager of pro teams that I had to start practicing what I preached. This basically boiled down to the fact that if you have a bad day or week, and if you or your team are not doing particularly well, you need to find effective ways to deal with it. You must become proactive and get into the attack mode, doing everything you can to get answers.
This approach is what I had to bring to my own cancer treatment. What scared me initially, in addition to my cancer, was that I didn’t have the answers I needed. It certainly was a very difficult time emotionally. I was a mess; my blood pressure had skyrocketed—all from being scared about the cancer and what I had to do about it.
When we finally got to St. Louis, the specialist went over all my test results in detail and eventually said that, based on the aggressiveness of the cancer and my age, he’d recommend that I have a radical prostatectomy. Ali and I listened as he described the intricacies of the surgery and what my post-operative experience would be like. Hearing his description helped to calm me down enormously. The ultimate decision about what to do, the doctor said, was mine to make. He got up and headed for the door, saying he would leave us alone for a while to make that decision. Ali and I finally decided that surgery, with its strong chance for cure and limited side effects, was what we wanted to do.
Surgery and Its Aftermath
My surgery proceeded without any complications and the specialist said it had been successful. In addition to getting all the cancer out, he was also able to save both nerves on the prostate that control sexual function. Back home from the hospital, I had some post-operative problems with incontinence but they cleared up very quickly. One thing I really noticed after the surgery, however, was a distinct energy loss. I felt that the fatigue came from a combination of factors, which included the physical trauma of the surgery, having the urinary catheter in for three weeks, and finally just the psychological fatigue that came from knowing that I had cancer. Put them all together and you get pretty tired.
People often ask me if I made any changes in my diet after my cancer diagnosis. Since heart disease runs in my family, I have always been conscious about eating healthful, low-fat meals. But since Ali and I had read about the possible effects of nutrition on prostate cancer, we consulted nutritionists after my surgery to find ways of replacing all the cholesterol-laden foods still in our diet. We were given tasty recipes that were low in fat, high in fiber and rich in phytochemicals. I also decided to extend my nutritional changes to the snacks I eat in the dugout. During the sixth inning of every game I have a soy shake and throughout the game I will drink anywhere from six to eight cups of iced green tea. Both are supposed to play a preventive role against prostate cancer and since I like the taste, it’s not a problem.
Regular exercise was part of my recovery program. I’m a believer in the power of exercise so I was religious about the walking routine I followed daily. I have to admit, though, sometimes I worked out too rigorously in the early days and had to back off in order to recover.
I was anxious about getting back to the Yankees as soon as I was able. Managing the team is a seven-day-a-week job with many late nights, and it takes a certain level of stamina to keep up the demanding pace. If I worked a nine-to-five, five-day-a-week job, I think I could have gone back to work much earlier than I did because I could have rested up on the weekends and recovered in time for work the following Monday. Baseball doesn’t offer that luxury.
The most difficult time came near the end of my recovery, when I was feeling pretty good during the day. But then I routinely found myself nodding off at about 10 pm. I had to be realistic. If I had been back managing the team, I would have been nodding off like that in the dugout in the sixth inning of a game. To do the job right, I needed to be able to stay awake until at least one or two o’clock in the morning, so I decided to hold off my return to the Yankees until I could do that. Finally, two months after my surgery, I was back in the Yankee dugout. Energy-wise, I was fine and could do my work without a problem.