Two years ago, Michael Norris never imagined cancer could help change his life for the better.
Today, the 48-year-old Alta High School physical education teacher and junior high boys basketball coach attributes much of his newfound patience in life to his successful struggle with prostate cancer.
A 24-year veteran of the Alta school system, Norris went in for a routine physical in April of 2000 after sensing some pain, and his physician suggested he take a digital rectal exam and PSA blood test to check for the possibility of prostate cancer, the most common cancer in American men today.
After his physician administered the tests, Norris learned the pain was indeed due to prostate cancer, a discovery that floored him.
"It was a complete shock to myself and my family," Norris said. "It completely knocked us off our feet. I had no outward symptoms of this at all, which is why it came as such a surprise."
A sex gland located below the bladder and in front of the rectum in men, the prostate surrounds part of the urethra, the tube which carries urine from the bladder.
Normally the size of a walnut, the prostate also makes a fluid that carries sperm, and, due to the duties of the gland, the two symptoms some prostate cancer patients see is a loss in bladder control and loss of sexual function.
Norris learned his prostate was much larger than a walnut, and the former assistant football coach at Buena Vista University quickly learned his struggle with prostate cancer would be measured over a much longer timeframe than what he was used to in the athletic world.
"In coaching you see immediate results of what you do," Norris said. "You either make the right call or you don't make the right call, and you get to know right away. I wanted to have an immediate result with this too.
"But, you really have to take measured steps with something like this, because there is no quick fix," Norris continued. "That's why this has taught me so much patience and perseverance."
After undergoing a biopsy at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center, Norris received more alarming news, as doctors said there was a high probability the cancer had spread from the prostate to other sections of his body.
"From the biopsy, they were presenting me with some fairly significant numbers that made it even more scary," Norris said. "They didn't really like what they were seeing, and they told me at that time there was a 10 percent chance it was not contained in the prostate. It could have been some other places, so that was a really scary time for myself and my family."
After undergoing laproscopic surgery on the lymph nodes next to the prostate to see if the cancer had spread to other areas of the body, Norris and his family anxiously waited for the results of the surgery.
Thankfully for Norris, doctors were able to discover his cancer had stayed within the prostate, and on July 6, 2000, he had the gland removed.
Throughout the ordeal, Norris drew much of his strength from his family.
Norris' wife, Dianne, who teaches at Storm Lake Middle School, helped lead the family in prayer, and his children, Michael, a senior at Simpson College, and Megan, a senior at Alta High, also helped uplift him through expressions of love and support.
He also received a great deal of encouragement from current and former students at Alta, who wrote numerous cards, sent e-mails and went out of their way to support their gym teacher.
Norris said he was greatly inspired by watching two male students who were also undergoing cancer treatments at the same time.
"Their situations were much more serious than mine, and they really showed me courage by the types of attitudes they displayed and being here everyday," Norris said. "Teachers draw a lot of strength from students anyway, and those two really showed me what courage is all about."
The average age of diagnosis is 72, but the American Cancer Society recommends screening tests for detecting prostate cancer be offered once a year to men 50 years or older, as the risk significantly elevates for men above that age.
Norris, however, urges all men above 40 to ask for digital rectal exams and PSA blood tests, as it is estimated 40 percent of prostate cancers aren't diagnosed until they spread beyond the prostate.
"I really encourage every man to get this test done, because there are few outward signs," Norris said. "I thought instead of 47, something like this happens at 77, but I was wrong. I was 47 and it happened to me. I didn't fall into that normal pattern, and if I hadn't been tested until I was 50, it probably would have been too late."
After asking the school nurse to include an option for prostate cancer testing during their yearly wellness test, several fellow employees who had never previously checked for the condition did so.
Norris was ecstatic that his co-workers decided to check to see if they had the cancer.
"During our wellness testing, I think we had seven or eight guys that got tested that probably wouldn't have otherwise," Norris said. "Now whether I scared them into it or gave them good information, I don't know. I don't care what the reason is. I'm just glad they're doing it, because it's a lifesaver."
Norris said the procedure is extremely simple, and clinics such as BVRMC offer the service for anywhere from $18 to $25.
"It is really a simple physical exam," Norris said. "The digital exam is a little uncomfortable, but everyone has had blood tests before, and the blood test was how they discovered my prostate cancer. It's definitely well worth it for anyone over 40 to get checked out."
Over a year has passed since Norris' operation, and he is tested by Mayo Clinic physicians every four months to make sure the cancer does not return.
Despite everything that he has gone through, Norris said his life is better today because of his successful struggle with prostate cancer.
"I've been really blessed through this whole thing, because I think I'm a different person now," Norris said. "This has been God's way of getting me to look at things in life differently. I'm a more patient person now, and I take full advantage of every day of my life. It really has helped me become a better all-around person, and I'm extremely thankful for that."