John Gannon’s story starts a long way from the giant red banner draped over an entry tunnel a few feet inside the left-field foul pole at Coors Field. But there’s a connection: This season, each time a Rockies’ home run ball lands on that outsized “Hit the Mitt” banner some 375 feet from the plate, UCHealth will donate $5,000 to help the American Cancer Society, an organization that helped Gannon when he really needed it.
The grandfather of two and longtime Jefferson County Public Schools head custodian woke up one morning last July and found that he couldn’t move his legs. Paramedics brought him to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Scans showed a mass in his lower abdomen; he was wheeled straight into surgery. The UCHealth surgical team found a tumor wrapped around his spine, invading the bone, and strangling the spinal cord itself.
University of Colorado School of Medicine and UCHealth Spine Center neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Finn spent hours cleaning out the tumor and fortifying five thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, from T-10 down to L2, with plates and screws.
This was a prostate tumor, and it hadn’t appeared overnight. Gannon, now 63, had noticed lower back pain for a couple of years but had assumed it was from doing manual work and arthritis that had crept in over time. Plus, Gannon wasn’t exactly one to whine.
“Suck it up, buttercup. Cowboy up,” he said. “That’s what I did, and it almost killed me.”
“Cowboying up” in the face of prostate cancer is all too common, says CU School of Medicine and UCHealth oncologist Dr. Christopher Geiger, who has led Gannon’s cancer treatment.
“We do see it quite a bit, where a lot of men are diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer – often with high PSA [prostate-specific antigen] score – and not working it up any further,” Geiger said. He added that pain that doesn’t go away after about a week and doesn’t have an obvious source should be viewed as a warning sign.
Geiger had Gannon undergo radiation treatment and then, when Gannon declined chemotherapy infusions, prescribed biannual estrogen injections and a combination of Zytiga (abiraterone acetate) and the corticosteroid prednisone to lower Gannon’s production of androgens, hormones of which testosterone is the best known. Androgens stimulate prostate cancer growth.
Perhaps one in four men with metastatic prostate cancer avoid such androgen-deprivation therapy due to concerns about side effects, Geiger says: “They may worry that testosterone is part of your manhood, but a lot of my patients usually do really well, and the side effects are quite minimal.”
The testosterone levels of a man in his 60s are typically less than half of what they were in his 20s, and they keep declining as the years pass, so there’s not all that much to suppress anyway.
Learning to walk again
Doctors weren’t sure Gannon would walk again. For three straight days in his hospital bed, he focused on his feet, willing them to move “to the point that I was sweating,” Gannon says. On the third day, a toe finally twitched.
An American Cancer Society grant covered his transportation to UCHealth Broomfield Hospital. There Gannon would spend more than a month doing physical rehabilitation. As he regained use of his legs, rehabilitation specialists grew more optimistic about his chances of walking on his own – at least with help from the sort of walker he was using when he left UCHealth Broomfield Hospital on Aug. 30. He graduated to a rollator walker soon after that, fashioning a rope to haul it up the stairs behind him and out of his garden-level apartment in Arvada. Within a few weeks, though, he had improved enough to get by with a cane.
Eight months later, Gannon still uses the cane when out and about but goes without it at home – even if, as he put it, “it’s not pretty.”
“But every day, I’m getting stronger,” he said.
Gannon’s PSA score, over 400 at the time of surgery, is now below 0.01 – undetectable, Geiger says.
“I think with his aggressive surgery, radiation treatment, and ongoing treatment, he’s doing awesome,” Geiger said.
Gannon is savoring every moment of it.
“I’m looking down at the grass and not up at the roots,” he said. “I thank the good lord every day to be able to watch the sun come up again.”