By Jenny Song
Young at Heart
Donn Young refuses to let advanced prostate cancer interrupt his active lifestyle
By Jenny Song
Photographs by Courtney Hergesheimer
If you want to win an argument with Donn Young, you better come prepared with statistics and facts. Otherwise, he might just do a study to prove you wrong and publish it in a major medical journal. At least that’s what happened to his partner of 19 years, Phyllis Kaldor.
One day at home, Kaldor told Young about a trend her colleagues observed among cancer patients at the Ohio State University Cancer Center–James Cancer Hospital (OSUCC-James), in Columbus. An oncology nurse for more than 30 years, Kaldor, the director of oncology nursing at the hospital, said she and her colleagues noticed that dying cancer patients held on to life to celebrate significant events, like holidays. Young, a biostatistician at OSUCC-James, was unconvinced by her anecdotal evidence. But what proceeded next is something only a scientist like Young might do. He scoured through more than 1 million death certificates of Ohio residents who had died between 1989 and 2000. He then went on to analyze the dates on more than 300,000 certificates that listed cancer as the cause of death, comparing them with major holidays and dates of birth.
His conclusion? He found no evidence that cancer patients delayed their death to celebrate holidays and birthdays. The study, which was published in the Dec. 22, 2004, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was picked up by the mainstream media and caused quite a stir. People sent Young hate mail. Recalling the contents of those angry letters, he now laughs. It’s not that he’s morbid or morose. Rather, the opposite. Young believes in enjoying life now and offers this advice: Don’t wait to have a party believing that your loved one will hold on. “No one will fault you for celebrating twice,” he says.
It’s not completely surprising that Young, 62, would go to such lengths to search for the answer to a question. A biostatistician who spent his entire career designing clinical trials, Young is driven to look for data. It’s part of the reason that he enrolled in a national phase III clinical trial after he was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer in December 2006. The ongoing trial, which compares intermittent hormone therapy with continuous hormone therapy for advanced prostate cancer, aims to find the optimal treatment option for men. “For me, I wanted the answer,” says Young. “And you can’t get the answer unless people go on clinical trials.”
Young was randomly assigned to the continuous treatment arm of the trial at OSUCC-James. Every three months he is injected with the hormone goserelin (Zoladex), which shuts down the production of male hormones. Within three months of starting the therapy, his prostate-specific antigen score—an indicator of cancer progression—dropped from 90 to less than 0.2. Young “has no symptoms of the cancer at this time,” says Steven K. Clinton, his oncologist at OSUCC-James and a longtime friend.