The "Controversial" Way Ben Stiller Learned He Had Cancer
Doing this one thing saved his life, he says.
From Zoolander to There's Something About Mary, Ben Stiller has built his career on making audiences laugh—but in 2014, the star went through a health scare that was no laughing matter. At the age of 48, the Emmy Award-winning actor learned that he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer, despite having no known risk factors for the disease. After undergoing treatment and being declared cancer-free, he's now spreading the word about the simple test that saved his life. Read on to find out how Stiller learned he had cancer, and why he says many men are missing out on this life-saving opportunity.
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Stiller discovered he had prostate cancer after taking a PSA test.
When Stiller was 46, he went to see his doctor, Bernard Kruger, MD, for a regular check up. Kruger talked to him about his age-based risk of prostate cancer and recommended a blood test to get a baseline reading of the actor's prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels. When the results came back, his numbers were high, but not necessarily troubling. Kruger opted for a "wait and see" approach, retesting him every six months over the next two years.
During that time, Stiller's PSA numbers steadily rose—a subtle change indicating a problem that would've been undetectable without that initial screening. Finally reaching levels that his doctor found alarming, the actor underwent additional testing, including a digital prostate exam, MRI, and eventually a biopsy. These tests ultimately confirmed a diagnosis of prostate cancer. "If I hadn't gotten the test… right now I still wouldn't have known," he told radio host Howard Stern during a 2016 interview.
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He says the PSA test is "controversial."
The Zoolander actor credits his doctor and the PSA test for saving his life, but notes that the test itself is hotly debated among medical professionals. "It's a very controversial subject, the PSA test," Stiller told Stern. "A PSA test is the only early screener for prostate cancer, and right now the United States Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend to take the test. I think the American Cancer Society says you should discuss it at 50."
He elaborated on the controversy in an essay he wrote for Medium in 2016. "The criticism of the test is that depending on how they interpret the data, doctors can send patients for further tests like the MRI and the more invasive biopsy, when not needed. Physicians can find low-risk cancers that are not life threatening, especially to older patients," he explained. "In some cases, men with this type of cancer get 'over-treatment' like radiation or surgery, resulting in side effects such as impotence or incontinence. Obviously this is not good; however it's all in the purview of the doctor treating the patient."
The actor leaned on his former co-star, Robert DeNiro, for support.
Stiller is especially grateful for the early cancer screening given that he had no family history of the disease and no reason to believe he was at high risk. This fact also made his diagnosis that much more shocking, said the star. "It came out of the blue for me… I had no idea," he told Stern. "I didn't know what was going to happen, so I was scared," he admitted.
After learning of his condition, Stiller spent time researching other entertainers who had survived his diagnosis. He quickly learned that one of his former co-stars had battled the same form of cancer and won. "The first thing I did when I got diagnosed was get on the Internet to try to learn," he said. "I saw [Robert] De Niro had had it. I called him right away." Over the years, the pair had co-starred in three comedies together: Meet the Parents (2000), Meet the Fockers (2004), and Little Fockers (2010).
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He was declared cancer-free three months later.
In part due to his early diagnosis, Stiller received prompt treatment and made a lightening-fast recovery. "I got diagnosed with prostate cancer Friday, June 13th, 2014. On September 17th of that year I got a test back telling me I was cancer free. The three months in between were a crazy roller coaster ride with which about 180,000 men a year in America can identify," wrote the star. That "roller coaster" involved meeting with several urologists for second and third opinions on his course of treatment, and a successful laparoscopic surgery to remove his prostate—a procedure that saved his life.
Now fully recovered, Stiller is adamant that other men should have the same access to testing and treatment that he did, thanks to his doctor's proactive approach. "I think men over the age of 40 should have the opportunity to discuss the test with their doctor and learn about it, so they can have the chance to be screened. After that an informed patient can make responsible choices as to how to proceed," the actor wrote for Medium.
"It's the second most deadly cancer, but it's also one of the most survived cancers, if it's detected early," he added during his radio interview with Stern. Speak with your doctor to find out whether a PSA test might be right for you.
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