Howard Tomlinson: Minimally Invasive Treatment for Prostate Cancer During a Pandemic

“You’d think being at a cancer center, I’d run into a few cranky people along the way, but the number of people like that at Fox Chase was exactly zero. It was remarkable.”
‐Howard Tomlinson

I’m 66 years old and a resident of Princeton, New Jersey. I’m retired now, but I worked on Wall Street for 43 years and have been looking forward to spending my retirement doing things I love like playing golf, running, and giving back to the community. To my surprise, it was while I was giving back that my experience with prostate cancer first began, and, of all times, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Surprising Find

I’ve made it a habit to donate blood when I can. In October 2019, I was giving blood when the nurse told me my blood pressure was high. I thought that was unusual because I run frequently and try my best to keep in shape. I followed up with my primary care physician and got some blood work done. When I got the results, they told me my prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels had jumped from 3.1, which is normal, to 5.1 in a matter of six months.  

I knew the jump was significant, and the first thought that went through my head was that I needed more information. I was remarkably calm, but I was concerned enough that I went to a urologist. After problems scheduling a biopsy at another practice, I decided to go to Fox Chase Cancer Center.

A Minimally Invasive Approach

After receiving a diagnosis of prostate cancer, I met with Dr. Eric Horwitz, a radiation oncologist, in January 2020, and we walked through all the processes and he did more blood tests. At that point, it looked like radiation was the best way to go. We scheduled a minimally invasive SpaceOAR procedure for February with surgical oncologist Dr. Richard Greenberg.

SpaceOAR—OAR stands for “organ at risk”—is a gel that is injected under anesthesia into the space between the rectal wall and the prostate. The idea is to protect the rectum from the high doses of radiation used to treat the prostate. Exposing the rectum to radiation can lead to a disruption of bowel function in some patients. After the procedure, I was scheduled for 23 external beam radiation treatments.

A Reassuring Place in Uncertain Times

As I came to Fox Chase for treatments, cases of COVID-19 were beginning to grow nationwide. But even during the pandemic, coming to Fox Chase was a no-brainer for me because I knew it was a free of COVID-19. I knew they were focused on preventing the virus from entering the hospital, and I felt confident that they could manage it.

Still, I expected to be met with a change in my treatment or other obstacles that would make the experience more stressful. That was not the case. It was amazingly easy. 

I asked Dr. Horwitz what would happen if I came down with the virus as I was being treated, and he assured me that plans were in place. He took the time to talk to me about COVID-19 and my treatment. 

Halfway through treatment, the hospital decided that spouses could no longer come into appointments with patients. It was tough, but I found that the care was extraordinary, not only for patients but for the staff doing the treatments. I felt that the safety of the staff was considered as important as mine. I appreciated that. 

Fox Chase felt totally unique. You’d think being at a cancer center, I’d run into a few cranky people along the way, but the number of people like that at Fox Chase is exactly zero. It was remarkable. Dr. Horwitz, Dr. Greenberg, and all the technicians and radiology staff were incredibly caring and nice.

Looking Forward to the Future

Now that I’ve completed my treatments, I’m really looking forward to my bloodwork in order to see how my PSA levels have dropped after radiation. I’m confident it has been successful, and I’m ready to get back to golf, running, and seeing my family again.

In the meantime, I’m using my own experience to help others. I’ve connected with a small startup where my daughter works called Healthenly, a community that allows people to share insights about their health conditions. I’m joining to offer my support to people who need it. I’m eager to see how that grows.

If there’s one thing I would tell someone in my position, it’s to talk to people. See what people who have been through this have to say. It’s only after you get that information that you can come up with a plan. That advice goes along with a healthy recommendation for treatment at Fox Chase. 

Learn more about prostate cancer treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.