‘I’m a survivor’: Savannah mayor reveals battle with prostate cancers, urges checks

PSA tests are used to screen for prostate cancer, and Johnson’s results pointed toward a tumor.

Prostate cancer awareness month.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson wants you to get your prostate checked.

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, and at Johnson’s weekly press conference, the mayor revealed a vulnerable testimony of his own experience and prostate cancer diagnosis in 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson was inaugurated in Jan. 2020. Soon after, COVID hit, but that wasn’t the only high-stress item on his plate.

During Johnson’s annual physical, his doctor brought back the results of a PSA, a prostate-specific antigen test, with concerning numbers. PSA tests are used to screen for prostate cancer, and Johnson’s results pointed toward a tumor.

After a few more tests, including a biopsy, he received “the call no one wants” on Aug. 3. He had prostate cancer, at the worst possible time, while trying to navigate the uncharted waters of an international pandemic.

“There was too much going on,” Johnson said. “We had a city I’m serving, facing challenges unlike ever before. We’re partially open, partially closed. We’re waiting on some sort of vaccine. We have people who are at home facing economic challenges like never before.”

Johnson didn’t think he met “the prototype” for prostate cancer. He was 51, and PSA screens typically aren’t recommended until 55. He said he was generally healthy. But still, there he was, with huge decisions to make, both in city hall and personally.

“I had to ultimately make the decision of whether I wanted to live or die, fortunately, and thank God, because of early detection, because I had the information, because the cancer was still contained within the prostate and had not moved out… because it had not spread, I was able to have a wide plethora of treatment options and I was able to actively monitor for a year,” Johnson said. “Then, in November of last year, I underwent surgery to treat my prostate cancer.

In that time, Johnson said he didn’t miss a council meeting, and missed very few events, noting that he “just grinded it out.”

On Monday, he said he recently finished his third follow-up exam, and his PSA levels had returned to the typical range.

“I’m a survivor,” he said.

Why mayor shared his story

Johnson brought a chorus of experts forward Monday to help hammer home a point: early detection saves lives. They flanked him as he read a proclamation officially declaring September Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

“I say all of that because too many people, unfortunately, they don’t get screened, they don’t get tested, and then it’s too late and their options are limited.”

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men. In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be about 268,490 new cases and about 34,500 deaths from prostate cancer.

The American Urological Association suggests men ages 55 to 69, with an average risk for prostate cancer, talk to their doctor about prostate cancer testing. For men with a higher risk of getting prostate cancer, which includes African-American men or men with a family history of cancer, think about talking to your doctor as early as age 40.

Dr. Rita Livingston, family physician and former president of South Atlantic Medical Association’s Savannah chapter praised Johnson for his testimony.

“Testimonies like those that raise awareness and allow for individuals to know that they too can go seek out medical information, advice and recommendations on screening,” Livingston said.

Dr. Jamal Lawrence, also a family physician, said Johnson’s story illustrates that health concerns rarely happen at convenient times.

“Health concerns are never convenient. They come at a time where a lot of things are going on, where life is happening really fast, where family challenges are occurring, but that doesn’t make it any less important,” Lawrence said.

Johnson said he hopes to use his story and his mayoral status to help push for more testing, especially among those in the high risk category.

“Have those tests. What you don’t know could kill you,” he said.

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