Unexpected Pass

CSU’s top Ram shakes off cancer hit and runs with it, taking it all the way

Since joining the Colorado State University Rams as its athletic director in 2006, Paul Kowalczyk (pronounced kuh-WALL-check) has taken care of his athletes. From indoor practice fields and basketball courts to state-of-the-art academic and conditioning centers, the list of improvements he’s spearheaded on the Fort Collins campus runs almost as long as a football field. In fact, Kowalczyk is so focused on the health and success of his students, you might say he's the head Rams fan.

Paul Kowalczyk

But last year, Kowalczyk's focus was diverted. A doctor told the 53-year-old Ohio native that he had prostate cancer. Suddenly, his attention on health and success took a turn inward. Kowalczyk, who chose Sky Ridge Medical Center’s Dr. Edward "Ted" Eigner and the minimally invasive da Vinci robotic prostatectomy for treatment, shared his story with Health and Wellness Magazine in hopes of raising awareness about his disease and encouraging others to take charge of their health.

Q&A with Paul Kowalczyk

H&W Did you have any symptoms before your diagnosis?

Kowalczyk I did not. I had a routine physical. The physician did the DRE (digital rectal exam) and felt something and recommended that I see a urologist, who recommended a biopsy.

H&W Did you have a family history or any other risk factor?

Kowalczyk No. None. No symptoms. No family history. It totally came out of left field for me.

H&W What's it like to be told you have cancer?

Kowalczyk Yeah, that's a tough one. It's one of the most empty, frightening feelings one can ever experience. Every possible negative connotation of the word rushes through your mind.

H&W What did the doctor recommend?

Kowalczyk Surgery: a radical prostatectomy (removal of the prostate and some of the tissue surrounding it)...In the meantime, I went to work, just reading, absorbing, asking questions, seeking out others who had prostate cancer, and tried to gather as much information as I could in order to make the most intelligent decisions.

H&W Did that help you overcome the emotional part a little bit?

Kowalczyk It did help. Talking with other men who had had prostate cancer and surgery helped. I read three or four books on prostate cancer.

H&W Have you known anyone else who went through the disease?

Kowalczyk By then I knew a lot of people...I found out just how large the fraternity is. But, no, not before. (There are an estimated 2 million prostate-cancer survivors in the United States: American Cancer Society)

H&W Why did you go all the way to Sky Ridge Medical Center for treatment? 

Kowalczyk Everything I read about the procedure and about being treated, especially when it comes to something as sensitive as a radical prostatectomy...you've got to go with the experience. You've got to go with someone who has done a lot of surgeries. It's like Malcolm Gladwell’s book (Outliers): To be expert at anything takes 10,000 hours. You're not born with the gift. You have to work at it.

It's the same thing with surgery. You have to have someone who knows how to do it well so that you feel confident when you go under the knife that you are going to come out with the solution you want. I had checked around for names of surgeons and urologists, who's the best in the area, and Dr. (Ted) Eigner’s name came up. He had an excellent reputation.

Peg (Kowalczyk’s wife) and I took a trip down to Denver and met with him, and for me, it was immediate. I felt like this is the guy I want to do this. We had good rapport, and that coupled with the fact that he had an outstanding reputation and loads of experience gave me the comfort level I needed to go forward.

H&W Why did you choose the da Vinci procedure?

Kowalczyk Everything I read about the da Vinci method was positive: You lose less blood. The recovery is quicker. There's information out there that talks about how much more precise it can be. So I just thought, any time you are having surgery, the less invasive it is, generally speaking, you’re probably going to be better off. I thought: Let's place our faith in technology here. And it's not totally new. There's a huge body of work backing the da Vinci procedure.

H&W Describe your recovery.

Kowalczyk You know, the first week I struggled. It's just a very uncomfortable situation when your body's not functioning the way you are used to it functioning. But then I got a boost of confidence after a conversation with Ted, and three weeks later, I was back in the office getting used to working again. I'm looking back a year now, and it's just absolutely incredible how far I've come. In retrospect, it just seems like a blip on the screen. I feel fantastic. Things are going exceedingly well. And I'm cancer-free.

Paul KowalczykH&W What did you learn most from this experience?

Kowalczyk First, stay positive under any circumstance. Secondly, you're in control. You make the decisions that affect your health and your life. Even when you are talking to the doctors who are recommending treatments, you can guide the process. And finally, you have to have faith in others.

H&W Why did you decide to go public with your personal experience?

Kowalczyk It's a small way to give back, to make people aware. Men need to get physicals. They need to get PSA (prostate-specific antigen) readings and keep an eye on themselves. This for me was totally unexpected...to think that I all of the sudden had prostate cancer was a real shock to the system, a shock to me mentally. If I can spread the word and bring awareness of this issue, that's a good thing...If you catch something like prostate cancer early enough, you can win the battle.