Cal Ripken, Jr., one of the greatest shortstops in Major League Baseball history, is best known for participating in every Baltimore Orioles game for more than 16 consecutive seasons, an astounding record that isn’t likely to be approached. But in February 2020, he found out even baseball’s ironman is only human.
After a routine medical checkup, his family physician recommended a prostate biopsy, which led to a cancer diagnosis. But as the Baseball Hall of Famer pointed out in a conference call with Orioles media members in August celebrating his record, this is a cancer story with a happy ending.
“We found it really early through regular bloodwork,” the 60-year-old Ripken said on the conference call. “I had surgery to remove it, and the cancer was all contained in the prostate. Your life basically goes back to normal. So I’m lucky.”
Ripken’s good luck can be attributed to early detection of the cancer because of a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test that was part of his bloodwork. When the level of this antigen is elevated, the possibility of prostate cancer exists.
Why the test is so important
“The curability of prostate cancer has increased dramatically through the years because we’re able to detect it early,” says Angelo Baccala, Jr., MD, Chief, Division of Urology, Lehigh Valley Institute for Surgical Excellence, who also happens to hail from Baltimore and is an avid Orioles fan. “Problems with prostate cancer occur primarily when the cancer extends beyond the prostate. A simple blood screening as in Cal’s case can mean everything in avoiding those problems.”
Baccala says current American Medical Association guidelines recommend annual PSA screenings for men between the ages of 50 and 70. For African American men and men with a family history of prostate cancer, or maternal ovarian or breast cancer, it’s wise to begin testing somewhere around age 40 to 45.
“This is a conversation all men should have with their primary care provider or urologist at that point in their lives,” Baccala says. “An elevated PSA level doesn’t automatically mean prostate cancer. It can reflect an enlarged prostate or an infection, or a variety of other reasons. But if a situation such as Cal’s does arise, this screening can be crucial.”
The general guidelines for PSA levels are as follows:
0 to 2.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) is considered normal
2.6 to 4.0 is considered within the normal range but you should consult with your physician about potential risk factors going forward
4.0 to 10.0 is considered suspicious and suggests the possibility of prostate cancer or some other issue. A prostate biopsy would likely be recommended as a precaution.
“It’s important to note that depending on PSA level plus the age and history of the patient, it may be a case where we would choose to merely monitor future screenings instead of initiating treatment,” Baccala says. “Not all cases require treatment and some never do. The key is for men in these age, ethnicity and family history groups to get regular PSA screenings and go from there.”
Protecting yourself from prostate cancer
All men can help to lower their risk of getting prostate cancer with a healthy lifestyle. This includes:
Eating fruits and vegetables every day – be sure to include tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beans, peas and lentils.
Avoiding eating high-fat meats and dairy foods – this would include hamburgers, sausage, cheese and ice cream. Instead, eat lean meats, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.
Avoiding high levels of calcium in your diet – too much calcium could raise your risk for prostate cancer. Normal amounts of calcium in dairy foods and drinks are fine. But talk with your health care provider before taking any calcium supplements.
Maintaining a healthy weight – obesity has been linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer.
Exercising regularly – Being physically active for at least 30 minutes on most days can add a lot of positives to your life. Consult with your physician on what sort of physical activity would benefit you.
Don’t miss annual checkups
Ripkin reminds everyone that an annual well-care visit can save your life.
A look at Cal Ripken, Jr.’s baseball career
Cal Ripken, Jr. played in a record 2,632 consecutive games during his 21 seasons with the Orioles, breaking the legendary Lou Gehrig’s ironman record (2,130 games) on Sept. 6, 1995. Other Ripken career highlights include:
- 1982 American League Rookie of the Year
- 1983 World Series champion
- 1983, 1991 American League Most Valuable Player
- Selected to baseball’s All-Star Game 19 times
- 1991, 2001 All-Star Game Most Valuable Player
- Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2007.
Want to learn more about the Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute? Visit LVHN.org/cancer.