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February 24, 2016

Gov. Tom Wolf announces he is battling prostate cancer

He says disease was diagnosed early and doctors say it is treatable

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he said it is treatable.

"What I'm going through is treatable and will not interfere with my duties as governor," the 67-year-old Wolf said during a brief press conference in Harrisburg. "I found this in a routine checkup. Because I had the routine checkup, it was detected early, and I can do something about it. I want to make sure this is an example of why routine checkups matter and can make a difference."

Wolf, who was accompanied by his wife, Frances, said he feels "great" and is not scared by the cancer, which he described as being discovered at an early stage.

Wolf said treatment will begin in the upcoming weeks, but it will not impair him from doing his job as governor. He declined to specify his treatment -- but noted it would not include chemotherapy or any emergency surgical operations. 

"This is not an emergency," Wolf said. "This is not something that needs to be treated immediately, so the doctors are taking their time."

Wolf said he announced his disease in the interest of transparency. He stressed that the cancer will not prohibit him from carrying out his duties and used the announcement to emphasize the importance of regular checkups. 

"I'm not a physician," Wolf said. "I think you need to get some expert advice on this, but prostate cancer is something that older men get. A lot of older men die with prostate cancer – not a lot die of it. It has the unfortunate moniker of cancer, but it's a slow moving disease. Detected early, it's something you can do something about."

Wolf smiled frequently throughout the press conference, joking about his age and playfully chiding a reporter who asked where he'll take an upcoming vacation. Asked about his spirits, Wolf said he was not afraid. 

"I'm convinced by people who have looked at this and other people who have gotten this early on, that it's very eminently treatable," Wolf said.

Wolf said he first learned he might have cancer during a checkup in the late fall. A biopsy later confirmed it. Frances Wolf said the news initially was "jarring" but the couple remains optimistic.

"We're more than hopeful that he'll beat it," she said.

About one in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. It primarily affects men aged 65 or older and is rare before age 40.

Prostate cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in American men, but the American Cancer Society notes that most men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not die from it. There are more than 2.9 million men in the United States who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives.

The prevalence of prostate screenings has led to most men with prostate cancer to be diagnosed while the cancer is still at an early stage, said Dr. Leonard Gomella, chairman of the Department of Urology at Jefferson Medical College and a director at Jefferson's Kimmel Cancer Center. The five-year survival rate at the time of diagnosis is 99 percent.

"Most of the time, when an older man gets prostate cancer, it won't harm him in any way," Gomella said. "Our job is to identify the cancers in men that are likely to harm them in their lifetime."

Treatment depends on a variety of factors, including the nature of the cancer, how far it has spread, the likelihood of further spreading, family health history and life expectancy. Treatment types include active surveillance, prostate removal and radiation.

A young, healthy man might opt to have the cancer surgically removed, whereas an older man might opt to regularly monitor any growth, Gomella said.

"If you have potentially life-threatening cancer, there's really not one best form of treatment," Gomella said. "It has to be an individualized decision between the patient and the doctor."

Before meeting with reporters, Wolf released a statement announcing that he was battling prostate cancer.

“Frances and I recently learned I have prostate cancer that was thankfully detected early. My doctors made the diagnosis after a regular checkup revealed abnormalities. In consultation with my doctors, I have a planned treatment schedule that will begin in the coming weeks. Those treatments will last the next several months, but they will present no impairment to my ability to perform my duties as governor. Prior to beginning treatment, I will take a brief time to spend with my family. I am very thankful that my doctors caught this cancer quickly and have worked with me to plan a treatment schedule that will address my medical issues and allow me to serve the people of Pennsylvania. I encourage everyone in Pennsylvania to make sure they schedule regular checkups with their doctors and be aware of screening guidelines so early detection and treatment can be possible.”