Prostate cancer survivor Larry Ferguson, DMD, participated in a clinical trial at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.
Cancer is the word that no one wants to hear, and having a health care background doesn’t make it any easier.
In fact, said Larry Ferguson, D.M.D., it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Although he could talk on the same level with his doctors at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, he could also readily imagine all the worst-case scenarios.
“And that’s never a good road to go down,” he said.
So he prayed, listened to his doctors, consulted with his family, including a son-in-law who trained as a radiation oncologist at Hollings, and decided on the course of treatment he wanted to follow for his intermediate risk prostate cancer.
Now, two years after completing radiation therapy, he is cancer-free.
“I feel wonderful,” he said. “My strength, my energy level is back up. I’m feeling more and more like myself.”
A self-described workout junkie, he’s completed the Cooper River Bridge Run for the past two years and says he plans to keep running it until he’s 80.
And knowing how common prostate cancer is – about 13% of men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point – he’s now on a mission to bring more awareness to the issue.
“Since I've had prostate cancer, one of the things that I did is make a decision that I wanted to work more with men in the area of prostate cancer and prostate health, because it's been my observation that many men suffer in silence,” he said. “I wanted to change that narrative. So, I made a decision to be as transparent and public as I can possibly be. I want to share my story as a story of hope for other men.”
Radiation oncologist David Marshall, M.D., treated Ferguson. Marshall said that many of his patients find prostate cancer treatment to be “anticlimactic.”
“Patients are often happily surprised,” he said. “They're expecting to have a lot of problems and toxicity, and most people don't. They may have some mild to moderate symptoms from the treatment, bladder irritation or bowel irritation, and we usually handle those with minimal medications. And then they usually get better fairly rapidly after we're done.”
Ferguson’s story is fairly typical. When his prostate specific antigen, or PSA, levels began rising, urologist Thomas Keane, MD, recommended a biopsy.
The biopsy was actually Ferguson’s greatest moment of hesitation throughout his cancer journey. He had had a dental patient who suffered from sepsis, a rare but serious complication after prostate biopsy.
“That was a battle for me. I just had to come to peace with the fact that that's what I had to do. And it turns out that I ended up having four biopsies!” he said.
He had four biopsies because he was on a regimen called active surveillance. Because slow-growing prostate cancer may never need to be treated at all, active surveillance is a means to keep an eye on the cancer, through regular PSA level checks and, if necessary, biopsies, so that doctors and the patient can gauge when it’s time to move to active treatment.
For Ferguson, that happened once his PSA levels had risen to about 14. PSA levels above 10 nanograms per milliliter have about a 50% chance of indicating cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
At that point, Ferguson wanted to deal with the problem. He sat down with Marshall, who outlined the options available to him. His first choice was whether to be treated through surgery, external beam radiation therapy or seed implant radiation therapy. He chose external beam radiation, and also decided to undergo hormonal therapy, which temporarily reduced his testosterone levels to starve the cancer of the hormone it needs to grow.
Once Ferguson decided on external beam radiation, Marshall asked if he wanted to participate in a clinical trial.
Hollings offers numerous clinical trials, each looking at a specific question in a specific population of patients.
In Ferguson’s case, Marshall thought he would be a good fit for the COMPPARE trial, or the “Prospective COMparative Study of Outcomes with Proton and Photon RAdiation in PRostate CancEr.” Some cancer centers use radiation therapy powered by protons; others use photons. Both work, but this study is trying to determine if one offers better cure rates, fewer side effects or better quality of life.
Agreeing to participate in a clinical trial can mean more paperwork. For this trial, Ferguson and other participants agreed to answer questions about their health for three years after treatment. It’s an extra step, but it will help doctors to understand if one treatment is better than the other.
Ferguson has made good on his promise to himself to be transparent and public about his cancer journey. While still in treatment, he helped to start a prostate cancer ministry at his church and talked about his treatment in a podcast. He’s spoken one-on-one to other men grappling with the diagnosis, and became an ambassador for Hollings’ SC AMEN program, which uses in-person community outreach sessions to educate Black men in South Carolina about their elevated risk of prostate cancer.
He thinks that being public about his journey has helped other men to see that they have choices.
“For some men that I've talked to, so many of them thought that surgery was the only option,” he said. “And that's not a bad option. If I had chosen surgery, I knew Dr. Keane would have done a tremendous job for me – no doubt in my mind. But I think my journey has helped me to open the eyes of other men that there are other options. Surgery is not the only option.”
And having gotten through treatment, he’s now getting on with his life. He’s in his 42nd year of dental practice and now sees patients only three days a week, but he figures he’ll continue that schedule for the next couple of years.
He’s looking forward to his 50th reunion with classmates at The Citadel this fall. Most of all, he enjoys spending time with his four children and 11 grandchildren.
“God has blessed me. I’ve been blessed, being here in Charleston.”