There’s a humorist in every great sports journalist. Humorists tap into the deeper truths of the human condition in ways most of us can’t, and it’s a big reason why they’re funny. Disease weaves itself through the human condition.
So when Vic Lombardi – 2018 Colorado Sportscaster of the Year and a 32-time Emmy award winner – received a prostate cancer diagnosis, he didn’t just go public to help other men spot the disease early. He went public with his usual wit.
“I had no idea what a prostate was. I thought the prostate was in the kneecap,” he said. “In television, a PSA is a public-service announcement.”
As it has turned out, one scary PSA – Lombardi’s first prostate-specific antigen test – triggered an avalanche of informative PSAs: Twitter posts, podcasts, and the UCHealth–Kroenke Sports & Entertainment “Gimme 5ive” campaign for cancer screening and disease prevention.
Lombardi’s cancer story started with another cancer story: that of U.S. Hockey hall of famer Ed Olczyk. In December 2018, Olczyk, now a popular hockey announcer, was a guest on Lombardi’s Altitude Sports Radio 92.5 FM morning show. They talked hockey, but Olczyk’s greater purpose was to discuss his fight with colon cancer (he was in remission by then) and raise awareness for colonoscopy screening. While Olczyk described himself as having been blindsided by the diagnosis – he had been, in his mind, young and healthy – it dawned on Lombardi that he felt the same way about himself, and that he should get a physical.
A couple of weeks later, Lombardi was in a doctor’s office for a checkup. He was still 49 and technically shy of the half-century threshold at which the American Cancer Society advocates taking the prostate cancer blood test. But he was close enough that they did one.
The PSA test result came back high enough to raise concern, and it would have come back higher yet had Lombardi not been taking finasteride – the active ingredient in Propecia – to make sure his hair stayed worthy of the small screen. Finasteride is also prescribed to shrink an enlarged prostate and can roughly halve a PSA result.
Lombardi’s primary care physician referred him to the urologic oncology team at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital at the Anschutz Medical Campus (UCH). Dr. Paul Maroni took the lead. A biopsy found an aggressive form of prostate cancer (Lombardi’s Gleason score was nine out of 10). Lombardi thus joined the 175,000 men diagnosed each year with prostate cancer in the United States alone.
Prostate cancer is tricky to treat. Its growth can be so slow that “watching and waiting” is the best course – not something doctors or patients would consider for any other sort of cancer. But even serious cases leave major decisions up to the patient. Prostatectomy – surgical removal – can lead to long-term incontinence and sexual dysfunction, so some men opt for a combination of hormone therapy and targeted radiation treatments instead. For Lombardi, the choice was clear.
“Because of the aggressiveness of the cancer – it was a mean sucker – I was no-holds-barred, let’s get this thing out,” he said.
Still, he marveled in quiet horror that this invader had taken up residence below his belt and seemed hellbent on bashing through the doors of neighboring organs without betraying even the slightest symptom to him, the host. He assumed he was in good hands and that the surgery would work out, but the idea of his wife and three kids having to move forward without him decades earlier than he had blithely assumed would be the case did cross his mind. There was no way the seasoned journalist could kennel his curiosity to heed Maroni’s suggestion to avoid internet searches such as “prostatectomy side effects” or “stage 3 prostate cancer survival rates.”
“The toughest part is what happens in the head,” Lombardi said.
Enter the robot
On Feb. 27, Maroni scrubbed in and sat down at the controls of a Da Vinci surgical robot in a dimly lit operating room. Lombardi lay on a table a few feet behind him. Thick wires conveyed Maroni’s motions into jitterless action through which his robotic proxy sliced, ablated and sutured. Maroni had done about a thousand similar surgeries, he estimates. With robotic surgery, it’s easier to see, it’s easier to stitch, there’s very little blood loss, and patients recover faster, Maroni says.
Three-and-a half-hours later, the surgery was over. It had gone well. Lombardi called it “the best four hours of sleep I’ve gotten in years.”
There were minor complications. A broken stitch sent him back to the hospital the next day. For a few weeks, incontinence was real. This, too, was more a psychological as physical burden for Lombardi, a seriously fit recreational athlete.
“All of a sudden I can’t hold my pee? It was a real shot to the face,” he said.
Just as he had shared the process of his prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment with his 86,000 Twitter followers, so too he shared the ups and downs of recovery. He dedicated a short YouTube video to his having peed a hotel bed after getting his first postsurgical PSA test result and having subsequently downed celebratory wine and bourbon.
“I’ve never been so proud of peeing the bed in my life,” he says in the video, which he filmed on his phone in the bed in question. “Probably because it’s not my bed. Sorry, hotel.”
Lombardi launched a YouTube channel dedicated to interviewing prostate cancer experts and survivors. The “Vic Lombardi Cancer Awareness Podcast,” as he calls it, has so far included interviews with Maroni, UCHealth Executive Director of Oncology Services Jamie Bachman, UCHealth urologic oncologist David Crawford, survivors such as Denver Post sports editor Scott Monserud and former Denver Broncos punter Bucky Dilts, and others.
“It’s just as much for me as it is for anybody else with this disease. Talking it out is almost therapeutic in my world,” Lombardi said. “I want to know how a fellow prostate cancer patient found out, how he eats, how he sleeps, how he was treated, how he is doing.”
UCHealth took notice and, in collaboration with Altitude Sports‘ owner Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, launched the “Gimme 5ive” campaign. Sports fans are the focus – UCHealth is the official health care provider of KSE’s Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Mammoth. The idea is for Lombardi’s followers and their followers (and so on) to coax five friends, family or coworkers to get screened for cancer as well as take steps to counter preventable diseases.
As part of the campaign, Lombardi, the Nuggets or the Avs send out a reminder about a common health issue on the fifth of each month. On Oct. 5, they’ll mention that UCHealth Primary Care will be providing up to 150 flu shots to Avs 5K participants and spectators.
Lombardi is now cancer-free. Maroni is keeping tabs. The most recent PSA test, in September, came back clean. The odds of Lombardi’s cancer returning in the next 10 years are greater than 50-50. But, Maroni said, “I think there’s a decent chance that he’s been cured.”
PSA tests like the one Ed Olczyk’s advocacy triggered will keep coming. If the numbers climb, radiation treatment will knock them back down again, and a man who has covered countless battles will resume fighting his own. In the meantime, he’s feeling good, spreading the word, talking sports, and making people laugh.