Prostate cancer survivor pushes others to have regular screenings

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Donald Williamson of Fairburn was diagnosed with prostate cancer a month after his father died of the disease.

At age 53, he knew the odds might be stacked against him because of factors out of his control: his age, race, and family history. And he was diligent about being screened regularly.

“It’s my life. I can’t expect anyone else to guard it,” said Williamson, a 25-year retired military veteran and Chicago native.

He didn’t dodge the cancer bullet that also killed both his father and an uncle on his mother’s side. But Williamson did live to talk about it. To people at church. To people he meets on the streets. To his fraternity brothers, people who drop into a prostate support group he leads in Fayetteville, and pretty much anyone who will listen.

“I promised myself I would do that if I got treated and survived,” Williamson, now 58, said. “Every time I meet someone, I ask: ‘Are you being checked? Do you have insurance? What can I do to help?’”

Dr. Scott Shelfo, a urologic oncologist and medical director of urology at City of Hope in Atlanta, treated Williamson. He said Williamson’s Stage II prostate cancer was detected in 2018 during a routine screening that showed an elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA).

The options were surgery or radiation. Williamson chose to have a robotic laparoscopic prostatectomy, a surgery to remove the prostate. Post-surgery, his PSA level became essentially undetectable but rose again after a couple of years, indicating a persistent microscopic cancer somewhere else in the body, Shelfo said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

In the spring of 2020, Williamson received radiation therapy and a short course of hormone-blocking agents.

“Since then, his PSA has remained undetectable,” his doctor said. “He has no evidence of disease, and we are hopeful that status will continue.”

Williamson came south after high school and stayed with an uncle who was stationed at Fort. Benning. He briefly attended Columbus College (now Columbus State University) and decided to enter the Army after meeting a woman at a local restaurant who he knew would one day be his wife. The couple lived in 10 places in the U.S. during his career in military logistics, and he did two tours in South Korea and one in Somalia, Germany and Japan before retiring in 2008. He worked another 10 years as a civilian in the federal government at Atlanta’s Fort McPherson, Fort Bragg, N.C., and Savannah.

In September 2017, Williamson said he started feeling worn down and passed out at work one day. He said doctors initially thought it could be his heart, but “the cancer was just wearing my body down,” he said.

Williamson said his PSA test was high, but not alarmingly so when he went for his annual check-up that December. He was told the medical staff would be monitoring it for further changes.

“I didn’t take that, not knowing my family history,” he said.

A couple of weeks later, a urologist told him he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

“There was nothing else that he could have done differently,” City of Hope’s Shelfo said. “But thanks to his diligence in screening, he did find his cancer early.”

Today, Williamson tries to golf twice a week, thanks to the Georgia State Golf Association’s adaptive golf program for disabled veterans.

In February, he was on Capitol Hill in D.C. with leaders of ZERO Prostate Cancer, a nonprofit on a mission to end prostate cancer and help those affected by the disease, lobbying for more research dollars.

“As a prostate cancer survivor, veteran, and someone who has lost family members to the disease, Don has a powerful story to share that inspires everyone he connects with to help with ZERO’s mission to end prostate cancer,” said Shawn K. Supers, the nonprofit’s senior director of donor relations.

She said Williamson connected with the organization in 2019 and has become “one of our most influential ZERO Prostate Cancer Champions and is a prominent volunteer leader and cause hero in the Atlanta community.”

Credit: Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Williamson sets up a table at health fairs, his church, and anywhere he can, speaking to men – and sometimes, their wives or girlfriends – about the PSA blood test as a life-saving screening that’s far less off-putting than a digital exam. The monthly support group he runs in Fayetteville is mainly for cancer survivors but also is open for questions from people who are newly diagnosed or have a loved one with the disease, he said.

He also is a ZERO mentor to patients who need emotional and mental support, Supers said.

Williams is fulfilling that pledge he made to himself to help others.

“Every opportunity I get, if I am not busy, I try to do it,” he said. “And since I’m not working now, it is my priority.”


Ways you can protect yourself against prostate cancer:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid fat from dairy products and red and processed meats. Eat more healthy fats from fatty fish and olive oil.
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and highly processed food.
  • Limit calcium intake to 1,200 milligrams per day.
  • Get additional nutrients from tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, soy-based foods and green tea.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid heavy use of alcohol.
  • Avoid excessive intake of multivitamins.
  • Avoid vitamin E supplements and folic acid supplements.
  • Work to control blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
  • Keep your stress level low.
  • More info: