Five days into his job as Scottsdale’s school superintendent, John Baracy heard familiar words: Prostate cancer. They were words that have been a part of Baracy’s life for many years, affecting his father, brother and an uncle.
They were words that on July 7, 2004, became the most important in the former Tempe Elementary School District superintendent’s vocabulary.
"From an early age, I was exposed to cancer because a number of my family members had it," Baracy said.
"Having the ‘Big C’ has been lingering over my head since I was a boy."
Baracy waited until this month, Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, to discuss the surgery he had Oct. 11 at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix. He hopes coming forward will encourage men to be tested and, if necessary, receive treatment for the disease.
According to the Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education and
Support Network, more than 232,090 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer annually and about 30,350 die. A man with one close relative with the disease has double the risk. With two relatives, his risk is five-fold.
With three, as in Baracy’s case, the chance is 97 percent.
Baracy’s diagnosis came after a routine annual prostate specific antigen (PSA) test last year. The 55-year-old Baracy, hired by the Scottsdale district in April 2004, began annual physicals at age 28 after doctors detected a skipped heartbeat that turned out to be no problem. At 40, he asked doctors to add PSA to his tests.
’I WAS IGNORANT’
"I don’t think I would ever have had a PSA if there weren’t the Big C in my family," Baracy said. "I didn’t even know about (the test) until 40. I was ignorant."
This time, Baracy’s PSA was 4.2 — slightly elevated. His doctor suggested consulting a urologist, something he almost didn’t do because of his busy schedule. But, he said, "having the Big C lurking in the background" changed his mind.
A urologist studied Baracy’s PSA history and saw the numbers were rising, even if slightly, annually. The doctor took a biopsy on June 22, 2004. It showed three areas positive for cancer on the right side of Baracy’s prostate gland.
The urologist delivered news Baracy always realized he might hear.
"A lot of things go through one’s mind when they hear something like this," Baracy said. "It wasn’t about my health, but more ‘what am I going to do?’ I was just hired in April and took a new job. What’s the (school) board going to think? The job requires a great deal of energy. It’s a 24/7 job. Would the board think I can’t do it?"
Baracy’s father, Jack, died of prostate cancer at age 76. Colon cancer took his mother, Emily, at age 72. Baracy’s brother, Mickey, was diagnosed with prostate cancer six years ago at age 45. His uncle, Chuck, died of prostate cancer in his mid-50s, while his aunt, Emily, died of cancer at age 29.
Yet the picture seared into Baracy’s mind was that of his uncle. Jack Baracy brought his son to see the uncle nightly at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Those visits personalized cancer for the young Baracy. "My father put the fear of cancer into me quite deeply when I was a boy," Baracy said.
When diagnosed, Baracy researched the disease. He found material explaining it and treatment options. He sought the advice of Larry Bans of Phoenix-based Prostate Solutions of Arizona, who was recommended to Baracy by several people.
Bans, who also had prostate surgery, was a 20-year urologist who switched his specialty to prostate surgery. On Baracy’s first visit on Aug. 4, 2004, he and Bans developed a comfortable working relationship.
"I felt comfortable with him," he said. "As a survivor, he shared my fears and hopes. I knew he was considered one of the top prostate surgeons in Phoenix. "I outlined my three goals and he said they were achievable," Baracy recalled.
Those goals were: Staying alive, not having incontinence problems, and resuming a regular lifestyle in every possible way following surgery. Bans said that was possible with the most invasive form of surgery: Radical retropubic prostatectomy.
"The key was his cancer was detected early and remained in the prostate gland," Bans said.
The surgery Baracy chose also had the least chance of causing damage to nerves on either side of the prostate gland. Other options are radiation or hormone therapy, and less invasive surgery with a higher risk of nerve damage.
"I don’t like doing radiation because if it doesn’t work, the likelihood of later having successful surgery is very low," Bans said.
He told only a few people about his condition: His fiancee, Patti Craft — whom he married in May — board members, his personal assistant and the district’s in-house legal counsel. Other staff members were told Baracy underwent a minor medical procedure.
He also told his son, John, 29. His daughter, Martha, 27, who is mentally disabled, was told some time afterward.
Despite being away from his post, Baracy couldn’t avoid a district drug scandal that became the biggest story of the school year. He had subsequent clashes with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over lack of communication with the district.
"If anything, that situation raised my adrenaline," Baracy said. "It was the second time the sheriff made an announcement and we weren’t kept in the loop after he promised we would be. I knew I had to get back to work as soon as I could."
Baracy said his mobility was limited the first week and a half after surgery. Despite maintaining his "glass-halffull" attitude while wearing a urinary catheter, one aspect of recovery rattled him greatly: Having to buy adult diapers.
"The most humiliating part for me was the doctor giving me a list of post-operative supplies that included . . . adult disposable incontinence pads.
"It was very difficult to even buy the box," Baracy said. "It’s my fear of incontinence. You’re 54 years old and wearing diapers again. I was mad. I had no incontinence the first night so I threw the whole box of diapers away." Baracy also did the pre- and postoperative exercises Bans suggested, including Kegel urinary sphincter contraction — "He said I have the tightest sphincter muscles he’s ever seen," Baracy said — and has had PSA tests three times a month. After a prostate is removed, a man’s PSA should be zero — Baracy’s is.
"I’m almost back to a completely normal life," Baracy said. "I had a wonderful surgeon and great family support. They caught the cancer early enough. I was running after six weeks. Every day, I feel better and better. I’m probably still healing, but I’m back."
Why didn’t Baracy tell his story as it unfolded? "Although I’m a visible public figure, I’m pretty private with my own situations," he said. "Two months ago, I couldn’t have talked about it. I just wasn’t ready. I’m ready now — to talk and to enjoy the rest of my life."
Baracy will discuss his bout with prostate cancer and his recovery at 6 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Sports Legends Prostate Cancer Projects dinner at Casino Arizona at Talking Stick, Loop 101 and Indian Bend Road. For information, call (480) 451-6613.