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Stricken judge speaks up about cancer

After his surgery, Circuit Judge Thomas Penick Jr. is an advocate, urging men to be screened for prostate cancer.

Thomas Penick Jr. got the call at his courthouse office about 11 a.m. Jan. 7. It was his doctor confirming what he already suspected: He had prostate cancer.

Penick, 61, one of the area's longest-serving judges, thought it was a death sentence.

Remarkably, he stayed at work that day, spending time alone in his St. Petersburg office. His mind wandered, and he found himself wondering what the world would be like in a year after he was gone.

"When I first found out about it, I was absolutely clueless that cancer was curable," Penick said last week. "I thought, "This is it. This is the end of the world.' "

It wasn't.

Now, four months later, he is recovering from surgery he hopes will rid his body of cancer. Next month, he will find out how effective it was.

Penick, a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge who handles civil cases, returned to his office for a few hours last week. He plans to come back full time on May 29.

Two weeks ago, he took his first trip out of the house to a Clearwater Bar Association luncheon after Susan Schaeffer, his friend and chief judge, persuaded him to go. There, he was surprised with the John U. Bird Distinguished Jurist Award, presented only six times in its 15 years.

"It's about time," said Wallace Pope, a Clearwater attorney who headed the Bar committee that chose Penick. "The guy has just worked his heart out for years."

Penick, who became a judge in 1978, served two years in County Court before heading to Circuit Court, where he worked both on civil and criminal cases. He is considered one of the state's experts on probate law.

Though people often shy away from talking about illnesses, particularly those of a personal nature, Penick decided early on that he was going to talk about it.

"A lot of men won't talk about it," he said. "I kind of feel I have an obligation to talk about it. I'm not doing this to seek sympathy but to encourage someone to go out and get tested."

180,000 new cases a year

In an interview his first day back at the office Thursday, Penick was open about the most personal details of his disease. He paused a few times to collect himself, though, as he relived painful moments.

"Rather than have people gossip behind my back, I was straightforward," Penick said. "But everybody approaches things differently. You decide whether you should say anything or not."

In recent years, Americans have started to become more open about prostate cancer _ as they already have with breast cancer. Among those high-profile individuals who have talked about their condition are New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who dropped out of the U.S. Senate race Friday to battle the disease, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who has testified before Congress about prostate cancer.

"People like that bring it to the forefront," said Jolean McPherson, an area spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. "We've done a good job about educating people about breast cancer. Now, we want to reach people about other types of cancer."

Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer found in American men, other than skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It affects one in five men, McPherson said.

The organization predicts that there will be about 180,000 new cases of prostate cancer in the United States this year. Between 31,000 and 37,000 men will die of the disease this year.

Nearly every man shows evidence of prostate cancer if he lives long enough. Autopsies show that 80 percent of men in their 80s probably have some cancer cells when they die that did not cause any harm. Prostate cancer in older men is often not treated as aggressively as it would be with someone who is younger because the disease tends to grow slowly.

Schaeffer, who has known Penick since they attended Stetson College of Law together, said at least two of the 54 other judges in the circuit have prostate cancer. None, though, are as open as Penick.

Schaeffer describes Penick as one of the hardest-working judges, and said she had to force him to take an extra few weeks off to recover.

"You're not alone'

Penick first realized something was wrong last fall when he began to have recurring bladder infections, diarrhea and nausea. After several trips to the doctor _ who made other possible diagnoses first _ he was told he had cancer.

"You just kind of go numb," said Leeanne Penick, the judge's wife of 40 years. "It never dawned on me he would ever have cancer. He's never even been in the hospital."

Penick, who has a local doctor and one at the cancer center at the University of Florida in Gainesville, opted for the four-hour surgery though he knew the risks included the possibility of incontinence and impotence.

"The first time you say the word cancer, you think you are going to cry. We have so much attached to that word," said Mrs. Penick, who has two adult children. "But it's not as horrible as it sounds. We've seen so many cases where people have gone on to normal lives."

But doctors told him he needed to lose weight for the surgery. Penick lost 70 pounds in 93 days on a diet of chicken, fish and salads and a strict exercise regimen that included regular 90-minute workouts at the gym. His massive weight loss combined with a new buzz cut almost make him look like a different person.

"He's a very disciplined person," said Circuit Judge David Demers, a longtime friend. "I have an incredible respect for him and his courage."

Penick said he was depressed and felt sorry for himself for the first month, but improved when he read about the disease and talked to other men.

In the weeks before his surgery last month, he said he received two or three calls daily from men who wanted to share similar stories or seek advice from him about their own situations.

"The good thing about talking about it is that you know you're not alone," said Circuit Judge George Greer, whose father died of cancer.

The judge has been on medical leave since April 17. He spends the days at his Belleair home, sending out thank-you notes for the 100 or so cards and letters he has received. He attaches a stamp that has the words "prostate cancer" to each note.

Penick is one of those people who used to go to the doctor for his annual checkups, but had let 16 months slip by when he started to feel ill.

Now, he and his wife know how important those tests are. They constantly encourage men _ and women _ to get their checkups. That includes their adult son who is more likely to get prostate cancer because his father has it.

Penick says the disease has changed his life _ his diet, his outlook and the way he takes care of himself. And it has made him appreciate the medical problems other people have.

"I had no idea what I was in for," he said. "It's been quite an ordeal."

_ Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.