Ray Spells: Maintaining a Positive Attitude for Life Despite a History of Prostate Cancer

Age: 75Asheville, North Carolina

In December 2010, Ray Spells, a 75-year-old native of Asheville, North Carolina, went for what he thought would be a routine annual checkup with his primary care physician. A simple blood test during that appointment found that Ray’s prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level, a marker for prostate cancer, had risen, indicating the possibility of prostate cancer.

Ray’s doctor sent him for a biopsy, which confirmed his cancer diagnosis. At the time, Ray was 63 years old. Ray had already seen the devastating effects of cancer firsthand, when his mother was diagnosed with bone cancer.

“It was quite challenging for me to experience because of the way she suffered,” he said.

So, when he received his own diagnosis, Ray was horrified. “It was very shocking. I considered myself a healthy individual and that announcement shook me up psychologically. I figured I was in for a rough ride, but I was going to ride it,” he said.

After the diagnosis, Ray met with a urologist and an oncologist to discuss various options for managing his prostate cancer. Because his cancer was caught early on, one option was to watch and monitor his disease to check for any progression. Another option was a type of radiation therapy known as brachytherapy, in which tiny radioactive seeds are placed in or close to tumors.

Ray opted for brachytherapy. Initially, he did well.

A subsequent checkup, however, showed that his PSA level was rising again. “So, at that point, my oncologist suggested that I go to Duke Cancer Center,” Ray continued.

After undergoing a series of tests at Duke, he began treatment with an antihormone therapy known as leuprolide (Lupron), every six months. Ray responded well to the treatment. His PSA declined steadily for several years.

“Things were going pretty well, but when I went back for my checkup in 2018, they found out my PSA had risen,” Ray said.

Laboratory tests and MRI revealed that the cancer had spread to Ray’s ribs. At this time, Ray’s health care team recommended that he participate in the PANTHER clinical trial, which was evaluating a combination of antihormone treatments, abiraterone acetate (Zytiga) and apalutamide (Erleada). Ray was a good candidate for the trial and started receiving his treatments in April 2019. Ray completed the trial in March 2021 but continues to receive abiraterone upon his physician’s recommendation.

“I’ll be taking it pretty much for the rest of my life. And, overall, I’d say I have done well. My doctor tells me that I’ve pretty much beaten the odds on this,” Ray said. “It has been quite a journey. I’m just glad to still be above ground and moving. Having this disease and going through these treatments can really get to you psychologically, because it’s constantly on your mind. What’s going to happen next? Will I be able to maintain this level of health? Will things get worse? The psychological aspects of this were very challenging,” Ray said. “But I tried to keep a positive mind about the whole process.”

Ray believes he benefited from his active lifestyle. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he exercised regularly at the gym, and he continues to chop wood and do other activities around his house. He also maintains a positive attitude toward life.

“I’m an active individual. And even with medication, I can still do most of my normal things. I always felt that having a positive mind would be a help for me. So, even to this day, I think in a positive way,” Ray added.

Based on his personal experience, Ray tells other patients to do their due diligence and find a health care team that they are comfortable with.

“Once you feel like you got a good medical team, follow their advice, because they want you to get better,” said Ray.

Also, he strongly believes that clinical trials are a great way to improve the quality of life for patients while also advancing cancer research.

“And that’s one of the things that I looked at. In addition to helping myself, I’m going to be helping others by going through this clinical trial,” he said. “I looked at it as a great benefit. That’s how a lot of things are improved on, and I wanted to be a part of the process.”

Ray tries to convince his friends and fellow Black men to seek out medical care and get regular physical examinations.

“That’s one of the things that I do religiously. It’s one of my top priorities and it has worked for me. I can say that today. It has worked because I’m still here,” Ray concluded.