No amount of military training or experience can prepare a soldier for the day he is told he will be fighting a covert, slow-killing enemy.
That day was what U.S. Army veteran Steven Cooper calls his “personal D-Day.” On Dec. 21, 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix diagnosed him with stage 4 prostate cancer at age 39.
Mr. Cooper served 18 years in the U.S. Army Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard components, where he served as light infantry and helped fight the war on drugs with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration then reenlisted as a Military Police officer.
After completing his doctorate in criminology and becoming a criminology professor, Mr. Cooper said that he was “hand-picked” by the Pentagon after 9/11 to create a Department of the Army Police Academy. He then finished his military career as a course manager for basic and advanced military leadership courses.
He went on to become one of the first executives at the American Military University and later moved to Arizona to found Chandler University.
But then came D-Day.
“’I’ve been a doctor for over 50 years… and I’ve never seen a case of prostate cancer as bad as yours,’” Mr. Cooper recalls the VA doctor telling him.
When Mr. Cooper asked how long he had left to live, he was told six months. Mr. Cooper then said the doctor told him it would take nearly seven months to complete the required scans and develop a plan of action.
“Because the VA took so long to diagnose me, the cancer spread to my lymph node system,” Mr. Cooper said. “And when that happens, it’s very deadly.”
He said at that level it is no longer considered curable.
Mr. Cooper went to a private doctor, the scans were completed that same afternoon and he was scheduled to have his prostate removed 21 days later.
“I knew that surgery was coming up and radiation,” Mr. Cooper said. “Something intuitive told me that the better shape you’re in, the better you’ll do with cancer treatment.”
He started researching fitness events and found the Ironman Triathlon, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run organized by the World Triathlon Corporation.
During his nine weeks of radiation, Mr. Cooper began training for the triathlon, which he said his friends and family called him crazy for wanting to do whether he had cancer or not. But that did not stop him.
“When he was going through his radiation, he couldn’t drink any sports drinks,” said Mr. Cooper’s girlfriend, Rima Follman. “It was a little bit harder for him to get through the events, especially when not having any testosterone because of the hormone therapy he is going through.”
According to Mr. Cooper, he was disqualified after completing only two-thirds of the first triathlon for not making the cut-off time, but completed his second event only three weeks later while undergoing chemotherapy.
With the prostate removed, a vegan diet, steady exercise, nine weeks of radiation, five months of chemotherapy and two years of anti-hormonal therapy, the cancer was finally pushed into remission in December 2014.
On Sunday, Feb. 22, Mr. Cooper, friends, fellow cancer survivors, and sponsors Right Toyota and Zero – The End of Prostate Cancer met at Mountain View Park in Scottsdale to celebrate Mr. Cooper’s “road to remission” with a three-hour bicycle ride.
“Prostate cancer is the No. 1 cancer for men,” said Todd McMillon, a former cornerback for the Chicago Bears who was also diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 39. “We don’t know that because men don’t like to talk about their health.”
Mr. McMillon, founder of Anything for My Prostate, hosted a prostate cancer run in 2014, where Mr. Cooper attended to speak and participate.
With a light-weight bicycle equipped with an internal hydration system, on-board GPS and electronic gear shift, Mr. Cooper is training to participate in the Ultraman World Championships, where he will swim 6.2 miles, bike 261.4 miles and run 52.4 miles.
With the cancer in remission, Mr. Cooper is uncertain, yet still optimistic, about the future that awaits him.
“I’ve lost, in many ways, a lot of passions for a lot of things, but then I’ve gained some new passions,” he said. “Making a bunch of money is no longer exciting to me, but inspiring people is what really matters now.”