Like so many, cancer has played too significant a role in Timothy Bellavia’s life. He had melanoma at 26 and then went on to support his cousin, uncle, and father during their battles with prostate cancer—and later grieve their passing.
Timothy’s story is a powerful example of how patients can take charge of their health. He not only sought out crucial information early, but also choose the best treatment option for his body and future.
“I know,” he asserted, “that I made the right choices for my life.”
Timothy is a professor at Touro College’s Graduate School of Education in Manhattan, as well as the author of many award-winning children’s books. He specializes in art and music education that promotes inclusivity and celebrates diversity, and recently received the prestigious Innovative Educator Research Grant from the US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
He was enjoying his career, as well as the vibrant life he and his husband built for themselves. Despite his overall good health and young age, he decided to get his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels checked.
“I have a family history of prostate cancer. I watched the disease take my father’s life, and I can’t help but wonder if my father’s prostate cancer could have been diagnosed earlier in his lifetime. I knew that I wanted to be vigilant. You often hear that prostate cancer is highly curable or that there’s no need to worry about your PSA levels until you’re in your sixties or early seventies. But I wanted to know,” explained Timothy.
Timothy asked to be tested—and his PSA levels returned very high for his age (5.8). His urologist at the time recommended taking an antibiotic, but the level did not go down enough to eliminate the concern. He wanted a more thorough evaluation of his high PSA level by a leading prostate physician. “Given my family history,” he recalled, “I opted to get a biopsy.”
The biopsy confirmed that Timothy had prostate cancer. Of the nine small needle-punch biopsies, two tested positive for cancer.
After watching so many of his loved ones battle prostate cancer, the process of learning and choosing the best treatment option was, understandably, fraught with difficult emotions. “I knew that I didn’t want to go through what my father went through,” he recalled. “My urologist at the time recommended monitoring the cancer closely and start radiation therapy. I was sure that I didn’t want to do that either. My father suffered so much with chemo, radiation, and various experimental hormonal therapies and eventually stopped working that led to his passing away from it.”
“I have the genetic coding for prostate cancer to compromise or take my life,” he explained. “I wanted to treat it as quickly as possible.”
After receiving a recommendation, Timothy saw Dr. Jim Hu, a urologic oncologist and the director of the LeFrak Center for Robotic Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Hu recommended that Timothy receive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which confirmed the biopsy’s finding: cancerous cell growth in two areas.
“As a college professor, I do thorough research for a living and think logically,” Timothy detailed. “I also have so much knowledge about prostate cancer because of my family history. As soon as I met Dr. Hu, I felt that he was the right doctor, the one that I needed. He was so gracious, but also didn’t sugar coat anything for me. I appreciated this so much.”
After weighing his options, Timothy elected for Dr. Hu to perform a robotic-assisted laparoscopic prostatectomy, complete surgical removal of the prostate. During this minimally invasive prostate surgery, the prostate is removed through small incisions in the lower abdomen. A computer-assisted mechanical device (robot) makes the procedure more precise and less invasive than traditional surgery.
During this time, Timothy was matched with a “prostate cancer mentor.” Timothy and his mentor spoke frequently, before and after his surgery, often via text. “He was very gracious in telling me what to expect and giving me support. Beside my husband, he was my rock throughout the entire process, and I am very grateful for him,” Timothy said.
On August 24, 2018, Timothy underwent surgery for his prostate cancer. “I made a conscious effort to learn as much as I could about the procedure—but also not to see a picture of the device. I made myself not google it,” joked Timothy. “This helped me from getting too nervous. It was my first real surgery, after all.”
Timothy asked Dr. Hu and his team lots of questions about what to expect and how to best care for himself before and after the procedure. “I employed positive thinking as much as I could. My mantra was, ‘I’m grateful to God for my healing.’ Dr. Hu, Nurse Green, and everyone else were just fantastic—they were so present and friendly.”
“I remember waking up after the surgery and seeing my husband,” he recalled. “I cried because I was so happy to see him again.”
Timothy can’t help but compare his two experiences with cancer treatment. “When I had melanoma at 26, the treatment was not as personal,” he explained. “My experience at Weill Cornell Medicine was totally different. I compare it to studying at a small, private college, as opposed to a large university setting. The doctors were more approachable and friendly. I feel like I can email or call Dr. Hu without a thought. Everyone is very friendly, and I felt more at ease and at home with something very scary and life-changing. When I see the ads on the buses for Weill Cornell, I can’t help but thank God.”
Timothy admits that he was surprised how bruised his skin appeared immediately after the surgery. “During the first couple of days, I felt like I got hit by a car. Granted, not a truck with 18 wheels. But maybe a Honda Civic.”
He was instructed to rest, to complete specific physical therapy exercises and take it easy as much as possible. For a gym enthusiast, this was challenging. “To help myself recover, I set a goal: I wanted to go to a gala in LA. This helped me from overextending myself,” he explained. “Going outside to feel the sun and doing my physical therapy exercises every day helped aid my healing.”
Today, about a year after his surgery, Timothy feels great. “I enjoy going to the gym and have a very active life,” he said thankfully, “There’s no embarrassment or shame about my post-surgery body. The scars are minimal. I still have my libido and have satisfying initmate relations with my husband. When you have a prostatectomy you no longer produce semen, but intimately speaking I still feel one hundred percent. Overall, the surgery has extended and, in some ways, enhanced my life.”
Timothy continues to follow up with Dr. Hu every six months to monitor his health and wellbeing.
Timothy hopes that his story will help others understand that prostate cancer can affect men of all ages—even, like himself, those significantly younger than 60. “It’s important for anyone with a family history of cancer to be sure that their provider is aware of this,” he asserted. “I also suggest that everyone ask questions and get a lot of information.”
For those who have elevated PSA levels, Timothy suggests getting an MRI to expedite the diagnosis. “Remember,” he explained, “that nothing in your lifestyle causes prostate cancer. During your treatment, it’s also important to recognize that no one knows your body as well as you do and find a world-renowned prostate expert that you truly trust. I really trusted Dr. Hu. His work speaks for itself.”
Without a doubt, Timothy is grateful that he trusted his instincts. “I wanted to own my cancer and get the best possible treatment,” he said. “I know I did with Dr. Hu.”
Learn more about Dr. Jim Hu and
advanced treatment options for prostate cancer available at Weill Cornell Medicine.