Custer was 42 when a routine physical and PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test changed his life. The ESPN SportsCenter anchor and Showtime Boxing host had always been in good shape, working out four days out the week, and even practicing martial arts. So, when he received the diagnosis, he was stunned and fearful that he might not be around to see his three sons grow up.
Three weeks later, Custer was on the operating table to have emergency surgery. Before the operation, the surgeon made the popular host promise to use his platform to help encourage men—especially African-American men, who have the highest chance of prostate cancer in the world—to make their annual doctor visits and to be screened for the disease.
Custer was recently appointed as a sports ambassador for the American Cancer Society to help amplify its mission to eradicate cancer. In the 10 years following that diagnosis, he’s not only learned to better enjoy each day of his life, but he’s also made it his mission to help save countless others through his story.
Brian Custer’s Diagnosis
There were never any warning signs that would have led Custer to believe there was something wrong. No difficulty using the bathroom or any aches that would have led to concern. This is why prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in American men, sitting behind lung cancer.
Brian Custer took his first PSA test at 40 but opted not to the following year. At his doctor’s urging, he took one at 42. The normal PSA value for someone in the 40–50-year-old range is 0-2.5. Custer’s was over 4.
A follow-up test confirmed the abnormal levels, and a biopsy was scheduled. Custer remembers the four days from the biopsy to receiving the call to come into the doctor’s office for the results as the longest in his life. “I just felt like I knew the news couldn’t be good, Custer said. “I just felt like I was a dead man walking.”
After some small talk, his doctor revealed that he had cancer, and it was serious to the point where surgery needed to be scheduled quickly. Custer remembers being in such a daze after hearing the news that he had no idea that tears had begun to well in his eyes until the doctor handed him a handful of tissues to dry them.
Everyone Needs Their ‘Why Me’ Moment
As much as cancer is a disease that can ravage the body physically, Custer says it can also take its toll on the mind. Given how many people have approached him over the years to share their own stories of dealing with the disease, he didn’t necessarily have anyone outside of doctors who could talk him through all the questions, concerns, and fears he had.
Looking back at those emotions, when Custer does speak with anyone who happens to have just been diagnosed, he doesn’t lead first with “be strong,” but to be comfortable with those thoughts.
“You need your ‘why me’ moment,” he says. “You’ve got to get that out first because if you just try to go into fighter mode right away, it will tear you apart. And I tell them you need this. You need your why me moment.
You got to get that out first because if you just try to go into fighter mode, you know. It will tear you apart. Feel sorry for yourself because that’s normal and then remember the reasons you have to live.”
After a couple of days, Custer’s thoughts shifted to being there for his sons, and all that he had left that he wanted to accomplish. A robotic prostatectomy was performed just three weeks after the diagnosis. Custer’s prostate was over 60 percent cancerous.
Surviving Cancer Was More Mental Than Physical For Brian Custer
While Brian Custer was relieved the operation was a success, with his PSA numbers being as high as they were along with how cancerous his prostate was, the doctor wanted to see him every three months. He didn’t understand because he thought he was done…. until his numbers began to creep back up a couple of years after the procedure.
The increase was minor but gradual. In not wanting to leave anything to chance, the decision was made for Custer to undergo high-grade radiation. It would take 38 rounds before he would be in the clear. While the treatments were draining, the doctor advised him to continue to stay active. Already, someone who worked out four days a week, Custer began working out five times a week. It’s a routine he still has to this day that starts at 5 a.m.
The Importance of Annual Physicals
Even after the surgery and radiation treatments, there was a question that toiled inside Custer.
How would I have known?
The reason prostate cancer is known as the “silent killer” is that it can develop without presenting any noticeable symptoms, progressing slowly, and remaining localized in the prostate. Custer was told that he probably wouldn’t have known anything until he woke up one morning with the worst back pain he ever experienced, which would have meant that the cancer had spread to his spine. From there, the most any doctor can do is make the patient comfortable.
“That’s why it takes so many people down,” Custer says. “Because we don’t like to go to the doctor, and we don’t like to get our annual physicals. All of a sudden, when you find out you’re having these back problems, it’s too late.”
Brian Custer Becomes an Advocate for Men with Prostate Cancer
It wasn’t an easy decision to be an advocate for Brian Custer, but it was the right one. When his surgeon asked him to promise that he would help spread awareness about his story and the disease that was taking out people within his community, Custer thought about all the possible side effects he might have to deal with after surgery along with prostate cancer being looked at as an old man’s disease. There was no way he wanted to be open when so much for him seemed uncertain.
“So, I’m basically about to save your life and you would be that selfish to not save others,” Custer remembers his surgeon asking him the day before his surgery.
He went home and prayed and the next morning, he was sharing a photo of himself on Facebook, in the operating room, and in a gown with the message that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer and he was about to undergo surgery. He pleaded with men 40 and older to get their annual physicals and a PSA test because it saved his life. He hasn’t let up on that promise since.
“There’s that old Biblical saying that God doesn’t put more on you than you can endure,” Custer says. “There’s also another thing that I had to learn through faith and that’s sometimes he puts specific people through these things. Not just because he knows that they can endure it, but also so that they can help others.”
Follow Brian Custer on Instagram: @bcustertv