**SoH: From Firefighter to Cancer Fighter by Rusty Keyes

Stand Up to Cancer blog
September 5, 2012

Busting down doors with an axe. Braving flames and clouds of poisonous carbon dioxide to save a child. Putting our lives on the line for the greater good. That’s what being a firefighter is all about.

As a group of “manly men,” it’s not especially comfortable to talk – or even think – about the side effects of prostate cancer. Urinary dysfunction, bowel dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, loss of fertility… not exactly the first things you picture when you imagine a hero. But it takes a huge amount of courage to face them. And fostering open conversation about prostate cancer can save lives just like running into a burning building.

About four years back, my life was pretty much perfect. Incredible wife. Three great kids. A dynamic job at the Oakland Fire Department. Fast-forward to December of 2008, during the Department’s annual physical. My wife was a former lab tech at a major hospital, so she’d always insist I get my PSA – a blood test that measures the amount of protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. And when Monica talks, I listen.

I got my results… not good. Then more tests, and more results. You know how the story goes. When I finally got my diagnosis, when I learned that I had prostate cancer, it felt like a giant burning building was crashing down on me. No, it felt like the world was crashing down on me. I’d heard about the disease’s side effects and, frankly, I was scared. But my mind kept racing. What if it was worse than all those dysfunctions… what I was too late and the cancer had spread? What if I only had a few years, a few months or a few weeks with my wife and kids, the loves of my life?

I couldn’t bring myself to tell my family the results. Not yet. I knew that when I told them, I had to share it with them all as a family. I didn’t think I had the strength to tell each one individually. So I went back to my job in a haze. A smoky haze which masked a fear that was, in a way, worse than what it felt like when you’re surrounded by actual smoke and flames. At least then you can see what might kill you.

I felt like I had no resources, no people I could reach out to. The only person I told was my friend and “brother from another mother,” Jim, who did what he could to console me, to tell me that I could get through this. It took me a whole week before I told my family.

Thank goodness I finally did. Monica and the kids were my army. My strength. They convinced me I had more strength than I ever knew I had in years of firefighting. Meanwhile, I tried to educate myself as much as possible on what I was going through. I read everything I could. I exercised more – I’m kind of a mountain biking fanatic – and changed my diet. I’m not trying to claim that doing either of these will change the outcome for someone else facing prostate cancer. What I do know, what I’m certain of, is that they made me feel like I had some control in my life… when the disease otherwise made me feel like my life was so out of control.

With my PSA levels continuing to rise, the choice was clear: radical prostatectomy. Complete removal of the prostate gland. Of course if that wasn’t bad enough, somehow, during the surgery to remove the darn thing, my intestines had gotten tangled together without the doctor’s knowledge or mine, so I had to be readmitted to the emergency room for another eight days. I wasn’t too far from dying there in my hospital bed, and it wouldn’t even have been from cancer!

But it was worth it. I’m now cancer free. Those two sweet, magical words.

So now, I’m a man on a mission. I don’t want any man to feel like I did during my darkest moments when I couldn’t face my family or my friend Jim. I don’t want any man to feel like he’s going through it alone, like there are no resources or information out there to help him.

So, a little to my surprise, I’ve become an advocate. I’ve started with my fellow firefighters in the Oakland Fire Dept. Guys who – not all, but a lot – are afraid to get those tests early and often because of what they might find. Heck, for a lot of guys, the DRE test itself and having a stranger’s finger in your rectum is enough to keep them away! But waiting is exactly what prostate cancer wants you to do. That’s how it will kill you. And the reality is, a lot of the side effects that men fear most are often less severe than they might think. A lot of men don’t even experience the dysfunctions. And if they do, they go away in a few months.

But it’s also important to realize that even if a man experiences all of them, it doesn’t make him any less of a man. It doesn’t make him any less of a hero, for his job, for his family, for himself.

So I Stand Up for prostate cancer screening. Get it done. Not tomorrow. Now.


The youngest of five brothers, Rusty Keyes was born and raised in Oakland, CA. After attending public school, he played football through college at San Francisco State University. He went on to work for the City of Oakland Fire Department as an engineer. Today he is a proud advocate for prostate cancer research and treatment, and an even prouder father to Jordan (26), Austin (26) and Lauren (20) and husband to Monica for 27 years.