Steve Sparks looks fit, fresh and healthy. The 70-year-old Koloa man is upbeat, positive and joyful.
Looking at him, talking to him, spending time with him, you would not guess he recently overcame two bouts with cancer. Not only did he overcome, he’s rebounding well, looking forward to a great life and wants to share his story as a message to others to monitor their health.
Where would you like to start your story?
The industry today, the medical industry, says it’s not necessary to do a PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) check, which is a check for the health of your prostate, and I say it is necessary. Men need to take control of their health and they need to request that every year.
It’s supposed to be between one and four and at four they start worrying about it. In March 2018 mine was 44. I hadn’t had one for about six years or so. So that’s one thing. Request a PSA every year.
The second thing is, men do not realize they are at risk for breast cancer. I didn’t know. I never did a self check on my breast and until the day that I went into emergency I felt that, but I didn’t know what it was. I found out it was a lump in the breast, so men need to do their breast check. A friend of mine went up to his neck and found he had neck, esophagus cancer. So, if I hadn’t talked to him about it, he may not have found it.
The third thing is the American Cancer Society has a fantastic benefit for Neighbor Island residents. In Honolulu they have what is called Hope Lodge and anyone with cancer, any type of cancer on a Neighbor Island that has to come to Honolulu for a procedure, radiation, whatever, can stay there free. And the facility is amazing. They have this beautiful kitchen with like three stoves, three sinks, they have refrigerator space, they have pantry space for the people who stay there, and it’s all free. No charge. So I give accolades to the American Cancer Society for that.
What happened when you found out about your high PSA?
Immediately I had a biopsy after that and discovered that I had prostate cancer and it was stage 3.
What were your thoughts?
I was feeling fine. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t really know what to think until I met with an oncologist.
I’ll give you these connections because there’s miracles all the way through this whole process.
Our older son, Chad, is a doctor. And he put his feelers out for a urologist here in Honolulu. He’s in California. Found Dr. Roytman and our other son, Gregory, he’s a designer but his best friend from high school, she said he has to see my dad. So we got an appointment very quickly because she called him and said, ‘You need to see Gregory’s father.’ And he happens to know our son pretty well. So within a week we were seeing Dr. Cheung at Queen’s and he’s the medical director for the cancer center at Queen’s.
These connections are amazing. He took control of the cancer. He worked closely with Dr. Roytman. I wasn’t really a candidate for surgery just because of my age and degree of cancer I had. And he talked to Dr. Roytman and they both agreed they would do the surgery.
How did that go?
I had my prostate removed and it was just in time because it was breaching the surface. And it could have spread. They checked the lymph nodes next to it and there was no cancer. But the oncologist said if I hadn’t discovered that cancer I could have been dead in five years. It’s been almost two years already, a year and a half. That would have only left me three and half a years, if you take it literally.
So you were on the mend?
I was healing pretty well from that and about four months later in July and I was working at my computer and my heart started to palpitate. Here’s another miracle. Because when I get these kind of things, aches and pains, I usually say, ‘Well, if it happens again I’ll ask the doctor.’ But it didn’t stop. So I didn’t get a chance to say if it happens again, it just didn’t stop and it was kind of painful. On the way to emergency, the pain started radiating this way toward my breast. Then I was feeling it and there was a hard spot there. And I said, ‘Wow, what is that?’
What was it?
The doctor did his test on my heart, we hadn’t even talked about my breast, and I said, ‘What about the pain here?’ And he said, ‘Well, let me look.’ He said, ‘That’s not your heart. That’s a lump in your breast and you need to see a surgeon.’ It just happened that I had a visit scheduled for the next week, and so Dr. Cheung sent me to the women’s clinic. There’s not a clinic for men with breast cancer. There’s just a women’s clinic, so I held close to my wife (Norma Doctor Sparks). I had a mammogram then I had an ultrasound and a biopsy, all in that day because he knows I’m from Kauai and didn’t want to have to have me stay overnight.
You went home, then?
So I went home and a week later I got a call and they said, ‘You have breast cancer.’ I was shocked. I didn’t expect anything to come of that. Breast cancer happens to men, and it’s real important for men to know that. Within a week or two I was under the knife. You know, it’s really interesting. Breast cancer is day-surgery. I just had to stay in Honolulu one night in case there were complications. But I came home, very little pain. Tylenol was about all you need.
That healed that pretty quick. There’s nothing to be afraid of with breast cancer as far as surgery goes. It’s a simple surgery.
They also tested what is called the sentinel lymph node, which is the one it would go to first if it was going to spread.
My oncologist said, and he said this early on, ‘You’re probably going to have to have radiation because you’ve got to kill everything you don’t see.’
So, he referred me to the radiologist. Halfway through the consultation, he kind of froze, then he looked at his computer and said, ‘Do you know Chad Sparks?” I said, ‘That’s our son.’ He said, ‘I was in band with him at Punahou.’ Another one, not a coincidence, a miracle. When those connections occur, they’re meaningful. It’s meaningful in both ways.
Did you have chemotherapy?
I had four sessions of chemotherapy for the breast and the prostate. That ended in January 2019. I marched in the Rose Parade, by the way, through all of this, with the Salvation Army. I play coronet with the Salvation Army. That band, I think is the longest marching unit in the Rose Parade. My uncle marched 60 years in a row. Then he had health complications and couldn’t. But I wanted to carry the banner forward. All of my cousins, my relatives, my nephew, they’re all in the Salvation Army and they march, too. It’s a grueling march. It’s five miles of stop-and-go and wait. But it’s fun. The audience is so great, they’re so appreciative. You can interact with them. You can look around and say, “howzit?”
Then I had radiation.
How did that go?
I just finished radiation this July. I had 35 sessions for the prostate and 25 for the breast and I had them both at the same time. Both of these went very smoothly. The chemo was real easy for me. I don’t know why. I subscribe to Pandora and I just listened to music and stuff.
The radiation, they do one first for the prostate and then one for the breast. When I got two, I had some reaction to it, but it’s not major, a little nausea, things like that. It wasn’t bad at all.
You make it sound almost easy.
Maybe if you talk to my wife, she would say it was not as easy as it’s sounding like it was. It’s nothing compared to what it could be. She’s an outstanding caregiver. All the way through this whole process, she was just great.
Any other medical worries at this point?
So, then I had my next scan. Because I had two cancers so close to each other, Dr. Cheung said, ‘You probably have a gene that makes you susceptible to more cancer. So for men, the prostate, the breast and the pancreas are all connected. So he had me tested for the BRCA gene (an abbreviation for “BReast CAncer gene). Turns out I have the BRCA gene, which means I’m very highly susceptible. The BRCA gene, I guess the most widely known case is Angeline Jolie.
The BRCA gene is something that is inherited, obviously, it’s a gene. The worst thing is, if I have it I could pass it on to my kids, to our kids. Anyway, they got tested and they don’t have it, so we’re very relieved about that. That was a moment of rejoicing. So, I had my first scan after the radiation was finished and everything was clear. That was in August. I just want to get the message out.
How are you feeling today?
I feel great. I get a little tired. I take care of rentals, so I do a lot of labor. I can’t work as long as I used to be able to. But who cares? Take some time off, take a rest. I get tired, I take a nap once in a while during the day. But I play in the Sunset Swing Band. We’re going to ballroom dancing. I’m doing my daily activity as I had done before. And I look forward to tomorrow and the next day.
How often do you go in for checkups?
Every six months I review with the urologist, I review with the breast surgeon and I review with Dr. Cheung. And I have a scan. My next scan will be in February. So they’ll do the bone scan and the CAT scan.
Since you were always pretty healthy before all this, were you surprised when you found out you had cancer?
I was in a quandary trying to figure out what it meant when I had the 44. When I found out I was going to have surgery, it was a little unnerving. But you know, the surgery is with a robot. It’s a robot. So the doctor is looking on the screen, doing the surgery, taking out the prostate. It’s technology.
But like I said, I’ve been blessed in so many ways.
Did your faith help?
My faith carried me through it. I believe I’m in God’s will, and God’s will is perfect. I don’t think about it, if I were to go, that’s God’s will. But I just never thought this would be an issue as far as mortality. Everything seemed to go so smoothly. The hard part I had is after the prostate cancer, you’re supposed to just lift 10 pounds. And I was kind of a bad boy, so I ended up getting fluid in my abdomen and had to have a catheter put in my abdomen for a month or so.
But no big deal. It’s all good, because He’s there. I guess I’m an optimist in some cases. Not in all cases. but in that case, I just felt like, well, they’re going to take it out, I’ll be fine. Even when I got the second cancer, take it out and I’ll be fine. I was more careful after the second surgery to follow the directions of the doctor.