'Passing Through': In Memory of Gerald Chodak, MD

Kate Johnson

October 16, 2019

The prostate cancer world has been fractured by the loss of Gerald Chodak, MD, whose larger-than-life presence was a cornerstone of both its research and patient support networks. He passed away on September, 28, 2019, at his home in Michigan City, Indiana. The reported cause was an aortic aneurysm.

Gerald Chodak, MD

Chodak, 72, stood firm, against much criticism, for his early belief in the conservative management of prostate cancer — a conviction that eventually snowballed into a powerful movement of active surveillance and patient empowerment.

He was also an artist, mingling "vibrant color and abstract shapes" both with blown glass, as well as acrylic paint.

He said color always evoked a special reaction in him: "It fills our world, enriching it greatly. . . . I don't simply see it but rather I react to it emotionally, whether it is the changing colors in the ocean, the birds flying by or the flowers in my garden."

There are many who would describe Chodak himself as colorful, with an eye for style and a nose for controversy.

"He was a pugilist, a contrarian, and that always appealed to me," said Laurence Klotz, MD, a long-time colleague who admired Chodak's lonely voice back in the '90s.

"Back then around 95% of patients with low-grade prostate cancer were treated radically. Gerry recognized this was folly, and that really resonated with me — I ended up kind of running with that," recalls Klotz, of the University of Toronto, who is known for championing delayed selective intervention, which recommends monitoring alone for men with low risk of developing aggressive disease.

"He had a fertile mind and was willing to ask the questions that others weren't," agreed E. Michael D. Scott, the executive director and president of Prostate Cancer International and the sitemaster for The "New" Prostate Cancer InfoLink. "He was not always the most tactful, but he was also very charming."

"One of his problems was that people could think he was arrogant, but I didn't at all," added Klotz. "He had an electric personality, but in my eyes Gerry was a gentle, caring guy."

Though Chodak clearly enjoyed courting controversy, he never lost sight of his patients' struggles.

"He really listened to patients, and helped them to come to a decision that worked for them," said Scott. "He never told them what to do, but he wasn't afraid to tell them they were talking a load of BS if there was no data to support them."

"I remember playing golf with him maybe 20 years ago, and his phone rang," said Klotz. "It was a patient, and he took the call. That might not sound like much, but most doctors wouldn't do that. He said 'all my patients have my phone number.' I mean, this is a guy who was already famous at the time, it's not like he was scrounging to build a practice."

That dedication to patients is what inspired Chodak to initiate UsToo, an international support group that sprouted from a cluster of men who gathered at his office one February day in 1990.

"This notion was similar to the nationwide Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization that was formed for women with breast cancer," he later explained, in an essay co-authored with two of the founding members.

In recent years, Chodak also became a dedicated contributor of weekly video commentaries for Medscape.

"Dr Chodak was part of the Medscape 'family' for 10 years," recalls Christine Wiebe, senior director for Medscape features, who considered him a friend. "When he first joined us in 2009, I was struck by his earnest concern for patients and his eagerness to inform them about their treatment choices. He was an editor's dream: professional and dependable, but also provocative."

Chodak was a surgeon, whose keen hand-eye coordination was also evident outside the operating room.

"The guy was an athlete," recalls Klotz, with a hint of envy. "He was practically a scratch golfer, a phenomenal tennis player, and I once saw him dance, I'd never seen anything like it."

It was on the dance floor that Chodak took possibly some of his most meaningful steps: into the arms of his future wife. "Unlikely things often happen to those who step out of their own way," Robin Chodak recently wrote, in a moving love story about the couple's passion to tango.

There's a painting by Gerry Chodak called "Passing Through" — his depiction of the beauty and resilience of transience. These are the things he leaves behind with his own passing, along with the comfort he provided among those touched by prostate cancer that we "cope through knowledge and hope."

Kate Johnson is a freelance writer in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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