Ben Stiller says he beat prostate cancer
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Ben Stiller says he beat prostate cancer

Actor, 50, says he was diagnosed two years ago, praises early PSA screening; Ashkenazi Jews have a higher rate of the disease

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Ben Stiller poses for photographers upon arrival at the February 4, 2016 premiere of the film 'Zoolander No.2,' in London. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, File)
Ben Stiller poses for photographers upon arrival at the February 4, 2016 premiere of the film 'Zoolander No.2,' in London. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, File)

Actor and comedian Ben Stiller announced on Tuesday that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years ago. Thanks to early detection and surgery, the 50 year old is now cancer free.

In a Medium essay this week, Stiller advocates for early screening for the disease through PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood tests, even if men do not have a family history or high genetic risk of prostate cancer.

He compared the moment of being informed by his urologist that he had cancer to his own “Breaking Bad” scene.

“His voice literally faded out like every movie or TV show about a guy being told he had cancer… a classic Walter White moment, except I was me and no one was filming anything at all,” wrote Stiller.

Stiller himself did not have a family history of the disease, but upon his family doctor’s recommendation, he completed a baseline PSA test at 46. As Stiller’s PSA levels rose over the next couple of years, a cancerous growth was detected.

Currently, the US Preventive Services Task Force controversially recommends against PSA-based prostate cancer screenings.

After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men. Approximately 190,000 are diagnosed with the disease every year in the US, with black men having a 70% higher risk than non-Hispanic white men.

Ben Stiller's parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara on MSNBC's Morning Joe in 2011 (screen capture: YouTube)
Ben Stiller’s parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in 2011 (screen capture: YouTube)

Researchers have found that men who carry BRCA mutations are also at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer, especially at younger ages. In addition, a mutation on the BRCA2 gene indicates a higher risk of a more aggressive form of the disease. This is of concern for Jewish men, as the rate of BRCA mutations (also associated with breast cancer in women) among Ashkenazi Jews is one in 40, as compared to a rate of one in 500 in the general population.

The vast majority of prostate cancers are caught while they are still confined to the prostate gland and have not spread to other parts of the body. For men whose prostate cancer is detected early, the 5-year survival rate is 99%, the 10-year survival rate is 98%, and the 15-year survival rate is 95%. However, if the cancer is detected only after it has metastasized, the 5-year survival rate drops sharply to 28%.

“It came out of the blue for me. I had no idea,” Stiller told radio host Howard Stern during an interview for SiriusXM’s The Howard Stern Show about his prostate cancer diagnosis.

‘Taking the PSA test saved my life’

In Stiller’s Medium essay, whose publication was coordinated with the radio interview revelation, he described the journey he underwent from from diagnosis to cure during the summer of 2014, including a physical exams, an MRI, a biopsy and surgery.

“Taking the PSA test saved my life. Literally… There has been a lot of controversy over the test in the last few years. Articles and op-eds on whether it is safe, studies that seem to be interpreted in many different ways, and debates about whether men should take it all. I am not offering a scientific point of view here, just a personal one, based on my experience,” Stiller wrote.

The actor is aware that PSA screening can lead to over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatment, but he still thinks there are more benefits than disadvantages to taking the simple blood test. But PSA tests can be a useful early indicator of prostate cancer, which affects one in six men. The American Cancer Society recommends men discuss the test with their doctor at age 50, though those with higher risk for prostate cancer should start the discussion earlier.

“I think men over the age of 40 should have the opportunity to discuss the test with their doctor and learn about it, so they can have the chance to be screened. After that an informed patient can make responsible choices as to how to proceed,” he wrote.

AP contributed to this report

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