Arnold Palmer's Battle with Prostate Cancer

How the Golf Legend Became a Leading Cancer Advocate

Arnold Palmer is best known for being a world-class professional golfer having earned the title of “Athlete of the Decade” in the 1960s by the Associated Press.

In the span of his 50-year career, Palmer won dozens of PGA titles and became a long-term spokesman for such charitable organizations as the March of Dimes and the Eisenhower Medical Center Foundation (with whom he had a close association through his friendship with Dwight Eisenhower).

Just as importantly, Palmer (who died heart disease in 2016 at age 87) became a leading advocate for prostate cancer awareness after experiencing the disease firsthand.

Arnold Palmer
Mike Ehrmann/WireImage/Getty Images

Palmer's Prostate Cancer Diagnosis

Palmer was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997. Although he had no physical symptoms of the disease, he had been getting routine physical exams including regular prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests.

While Palmer's PSA had been rising year on year (suggesting prostate enlargement), it had reached a point in the mid-1990s where a biopsy seemed reasonable. While the initial tests showed no signs of cancer, subsequent rises in his PSA warranted a second look. It was then that early-stage cancer was confirmed by his doctors at the Mayo Clinic.

Palmer chose to undergo surgery to remove the entire gland (known as a radical prostatectomy). He followed this with radiation therapy for seven weeks for which he achieved sustained remission for the duration of his life.

Within eight weeks of his treatment, Palmer was back on the Senior PGA Tour. Despite the eradication of cancer, Palmer reported feeling weaker and in need a longer recovery time after practice. Despite this, Palmer continued to play for the next nine years, culminating with his retirement from the sport in 2006.

Palmer's Contributions to Cancer

Following his treatment in 1997, Palmer took center stage in a national prostate cancer awareness campaign, encouraging men not to wait until their 50s to get screened, While the position is not endorsed by public health officials (given the high rate of false-positive results), it highlighted the need for greater surveillance in men who often ignore their prostate cancer risk.

Palmer took his efforts one step further by helping found the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center within the Eisenhower Medical Center near Palm Springs, California. The non-profit facility today offers state-of-the-art cancer treatments including proton radiation and chemotherapy.

Palmer's dream of opening a cancer research facility near his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania was finally realized in 2003 when the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center unveiled the Arnold Palmer Pavilion (since remained the Arnold Palmer Cancer Center). The 30,000-square-foot unit features comprehensive outpatient oncology and diagnostic testing.

Other Health Contributions

Early in his career, Palmer regularly smoked cigarettes and battled a nicotine addiction for many years. At one stage, he even endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes in a series of TV ads.

By 1978, however, Palmer made a complete about-face and not only quit smoking but became a vocal anti-smoking advocate. He even admitted that the smoking hurt almost every organ in his body and likely contributed to the development of his own cancer in 1997.

Palmer's charitable work included the founding of the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Florida and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, named after his wife Winnie Walzer Palmer.

1 Source
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  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Final Recommendation Statement: Prostate Cancer: Screening.

By Matthew Schmitz, MD
Matthew Schmitz, MD, is a professional radiologist who has worked extensively with prostate cancer patients and their families.