Prostate Cancer: Two Doctors Battle One Killer

(CBS)
Kelly Wallace is a CBS News Correspondent based in New York.
What are the odds of a brother and sister, both with PhD's in medicine and science, dedicating their lives to finding a cure for prostate cancer?

I posed that question to 37-year-old Isla Garraway. She and her 39-year-old brother Levi are two of the leading prostate cancer researchers in the country.

"Pretty low," she replied after a pause and a chuckle.

Pretty low indeed. There are moments in my job where I think I'm so lucky to do what I do. This is one of those times because the Doctors Garraway are inspiring, passionately committed to what they do and incredibly humble. And what a story they have to tell.

Their joint career path was no accident. It was inspired by their beloved dad after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the young age of 61.

"I can't remember a time when he was ever sick," said Isla. "So I just couldn't believe that we were all of a sudden struck with this diagnosis."

She and Levi, both studying for their advanced degrees at the time, didn't know anything about the disease.

"I saw on TV that Ronald Reagan had it, that was the extent of how much I thought about it, even as a medical student," Levi, now a physician-scientist at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told me.

Like any family facing a cancer diagnosis, they quickly tried to learn everything they could about prostate cancer. It was during that time that Levi and Isla knew there was really only one path they could take in their careers.

"It was something where I felt like this is why I am here in a sense, this is why I am getting up in the morning and I think that has persisted even til this day," said Levi.

Isla said she just realized "this is really what I should do." She's now a surgeon and a scientist, running her own lab at UCLA's Johnson Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Why would I do anything else, there is so much yet to be discovered in this field, there are so many men becoming affected by this, why would I go into anything else?"

Four years after their dad's diagnosis, Michael Garraway, an Ohio State professor and biologist, died at the age of 65. Since then, Isla and Levi have worked privately, studying the causes of prostate cancer with the ultimate goal of hopefully finding a cure. They spoke out publicly for the first time – to us – on what coincidentally was the eight year anniversary of their father's death.

"Literally for five or six years, I couldn't talk about it without totally becoming emotional so you know, but I think now it's great to have a forum to really just kind of celebrate his life and how much he loved life and how much prostate cancer can impact the family and change life," she said.

Their message, as we approach Father's Day, is for current and future fathers to be aware of the disease and to get tested. The numbers are sobering – one in six men will get prostate cancer in his lifetime, with African American men sixty percent more likely to get the disease than white men and more than twice as likely to die from it, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

"I certainly urge any man out there who has been reluctant to go to the doctor to go ahead and do it, it's not that bad," said Levi.

The Doctors Garraway say men 50 or older should get annual check-ups and African American men or men with a family history may consider getting checked earlier.

"Like us, many people out there have great fathers and the gift that can be given to them, one of the major gifts is to keep them healthy, to keep them around for as long as possible and this is one way," said Levi.

I'm going to urge my dad to get a screening. Will you urge yours?