Published on April 2, 2020
Rick Rosenthal treated his prostate cancer diagnosis and the surgery following it like an athlete with an injury.
It may sound cliched, but it’s what got him through. He remembers the first words out of the doctor’s mouth: “It’s cancer, and it’s an aggressive cancer.” His first thought, “Am I going to die?”
“How do you deal with that?” said Rosenthal, 76, of Santa Barbara, California, in an interview with Patient Power’s Andrea Hutton. “I went in thinking, ‘Let’s get rid of it,’ like a lot of guys, and then I’ll deal with it. I played a lot of sports, was hurt at times, in high school, university. I dealt with cancer like an athletic injury. That was my mental state.”
Rosenthal, a marine biologist and four-time Emmy and BAFTA award-winning filmmaker, was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009. A biopsy revealed Gleason 7 (medium grade). Instead of radiation, he opted for robotic-assisted surgery with the da Vinci Surgical System, known for its precision and accuracy. The goal was to preserve the nerve fibers, muscles and blood vessels that are required for urinary continence and erectile function.
“That would give me somewhat of a sex life after the surgery,” said Rosenthal, whose work includes Riddle of the Right Whale and Sperm Whales: Back From the Abyss for BBC. “Because that’s what most men worry about obviously—and incontinency.
“You discuss that with them,” he added, referring to his doctors. “But they don’t know how to fix that. It’s kind of like, ‘Good luck pal, but you’re alive.’ Well, there’s a lot more to life than being alive. It’s about quality.”
During the five-hour operation, his doctors discovered that the cancer had spread outside of the prostate gland and into the seminal vesicle. They expected the cancer to return and recommended radiation, but Rosenthal declined.
“I’m in the outdoors. I work in the ocean. I work with wildlife, and it’s very physical,” he said. “I want to get on with my life.”
The recovery was slow and painful, Rosenthal said. When he went swimming for the first time, he put on his fins and jumped into the water, but he couldn’t kick, and he sunk.
“My wife and her mother knew how athletic I am, and they were really worried,” Rosenthal recalled. “It was kind of like ‘He’s crashed. Will he be able to do his job again? Will he be able to work in the outdoors?’”
Rosenthal felt he needed some way to mitigate the pain without opioid medication. He began eating a Mediterranean diet, slowly intensified his exercise routine—mostly swimming, and tried to keep a positive outlook.
Two months later, he went to Costa Rica for a scheduled film shoot. During the first free dive in the open ocean, there was pain, but he was able to swim. The pain began to subside, and he started to regain his confidence.
His sex life slowly returned, and life got back to normal.
But in 2018, his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level increased to 18. (PSA levels of 4.0 ng/mL and lower are normal.)
A highly specialized scan detected cancer in the lymph nodes in his pelvic region. He underwent a second surgery to remove them. Doctors again suggested radiation, and he again said no.
Rosenthal is once again cancer-free and back in the ocean. But a recurrence is never far from his mind. Recently, his hip was hurting, and he immediately thought of cancer. He had a PSA test and it was only 1.5.
He credits his wife, Katya Shirokow, for helping him through treatment. She asked pointed questions about his recovery, mainly about the sexual side effects.
“It's perhaps easier to ask dispassionate questions about sexual matters when it isn't happening to you directly,” she said in a separate interview with Hutton. “I felt the freedom to ask those questions of my husband's doctors, and also perhaps, because the surgery wasn't happening to me, I felt I could give a little bit more perspective on the options to surgery, the alternatives to surgery.”
Rosenthal shares his story of beating prostate cancer—twice—in the context of an athlete returning from a potentially career-ending injury.
“I’m going to beat it or deal with it enough that It’s not going to ruin my life,” he said. “I told myself, ‘You have work to do.’ I couldn’t call in a second-string quarterback and say, ‘You take care of that.’ It’s game time, and you’re out there.
“I have had an incredible life, and I am able to keep doing—not on the highest level, the ocean, and wildlife and nature,” he added. “A lot of it is you’re just not as strong, but I can still do my job and still have my passion to do it.”
Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
Recommended for You