Advanced Prostate Cancer Survivor

Research and advocacy keep survivor motivated

Leibel Harelik has lived a fascinating life. He is originally from Waco, Texas, and grew up in his family’s retail business. He lived in Jerusalem, where he studied to become a rabbi. Next, he worked as a high-end kosher chef in Baltimore and Denver, and now is the executive director for his foundation, Prostate Cancer Survivors, Inc. Leibel met his wife, Debb Harelik, RN, the day he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. They have four grown children between them and live with their Jack Russell Terriers in Austin, Texas.

 

When I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in July 2002, I was 53 years old. I was told there was no treatment for me and I had 6 months to live. I locked myself in my office and cried.

I have lived a good life. I grew up in a Jewish family that did well, and I was an exclusive clothing designer for competitive horse riders. I then had the chance to live my dream — to live in Jerusalem. I attended rabbinical school and while overseeing kosher kitchens, discovered I had a talent for cooking and was trained as a chef. I moved back to the United States and was a much in-demand kosher banquet chef, and even prepared meals at the White House.

My path took a different direction, however, when I was diagnosed with terminal cancer. None of those other things mattered anymore. After receiving the terrible news, I decided that the God I knew personally had something more in mind for me. I said another prayer and made a phone call. I called the Bloch Cancer Hotline.

When they answered the phone, I explained my situation and asked if there was any way I could talk to Mr. Bloch directly. He normally didn’t speak with patients, but with my diagnosis of 6 months to live, he returned my call. He became a friend and a mentor, and gave me the encouragement I needed to go on.

My journey began when I was having some mild problems. After the issue did not resolve, my doctor sent me to a urologist for an exam, and a subsequent biopsy. They found that my prostate was 95% full of cancer and was already at stage T3, with lymph node involvement.

It has been years of ups and downs, which is what you experience with advanced prostate cancer. I decided, however, that I would fight every day and with God and Debb by my side, I wasn’t giving up. First, I was put on leuprolide (Lupron) — to stall the cancer. This gave me time to study and decide what to do: I needed a surgeon.

The DaVinci robot surgery was just coming to Austin and I wanted this new technology. I found a surgeon who performed the surgery with the same tools, removing as much of the tumor as possible. He did the best he could, but we discovered later that there was still cancer left behind. I was stable for about a year and then my PSA numbers started to climb again.

I did more research and pursued intensity-modulated radiation therapy next. I was hoping to attack the cancer in the lymph nodes and had some success. When we did the scans afterward, we also discovered I had six metastases in my peritoneal region around my abdomen. It is incurable, but we keep an eye on it.

From the beginning, Mr. Bloch advised me to start my own foundation and to focus on helping others. I launched Prostate Cancer Survivors, Inc. in 2003 and became active in research advocacy. I began traveling to Washington to meet with members of Congress. I also worked with the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense as a patient advocate on research for advanced prostate cancer.

Joining with these organizations, I testified to help the first therapeutic cancer treatment vaccine — sipuleucel-T (Provenge) — gain FDA approval. It is customized to each patient to boost the immune system and kill cancer cells. My prayer was that I would be able to take this treatment and that I could open a door where prostate cancer patients behind me might benefit from it as well.

That’s where I am now at in my journey. They can’t guarantee that this treatment will work for me, but I have something else lined up if it doesn’t. Treatment is expensive and I often have to search for financial assistance. I have learned that you have to be your own advocate. I have good and bad days, but I live without fear. God has me here for a reason and when I get up every day, I’m thankful to be alive.

Click here to read Debb Harelik's story.

 

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