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Aiming higher for prostate cancer awareness

How a pair of blue boxer shorts from Michigan ended up on Mount Kilimanjaro

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John Loussia, a U-M prostate cancer patient with a lofty vision.

How did a stage IV prostate cancer patient end up at the top of Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro wearing nothing but his boxer shorts? John Loussia’s story inspires us all to reach for the clouds.

John represents the American dream. In 1968 at age 13, he emigrated to the United States from Iraq with his family. His parents built a successful grocery business in metropolitan Detroit. Growing up in the family business, John worked side by side with eight siblings. In 1991 he went solo, establishing his own grocery wholesale business.

For John, now married with four children and six grandchildren, the American dream meant hard work and sacrifice. All too often, it also meant taking his good health for granted.

“I’ve always worked long hours, and never took the time to see a doctor,” he admits. “But since I never had any health concerns, I figured I didn’t need to.”

John’s wife saw things differently. For his fiftieth birthday, she made a doctor’s appointment and made him promise to continue with annual checkups.

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John Loussia, wearing Michigan hat, during his ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Five years later, a routine prostate blood test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, sent John through a set of biopsies with a urologist, along with close monitoring of his rising PSA levels. It was the second biopsy in 2011 that brought surprising and grave news: John was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. The cancer had metastasized to his right hip, and he had two enlarged lymph nodes. Scans also showed a small spot on the brain; a subsequent MRI confirmed it was growing.

At that point John, his wife and a daughter who is a physician, decided to seek treatment at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“As we researched where to go, Dr. (Maha) Hussain’s name kept coming up,” he recalls. “Right away, we felt comfortable with her. We were impressed by her passion for research and her compassion for helping patients.”

Hussain, a medical oncologist in the U-M Cancer Center’s Prostate Cancer/Genitourinary Oncology Program, oversaw John’s treatment from that day forward. A 12-hour surgery at U-M removed his brain tumor, which was metastasized prostate cancer.

Since then, his treatment has consisted of vigilant medical management and frequent check-ins with Hussain. “She has been outstanding – the whole team has,” says John. “From the start, I told her I’d do all I could to help raise prostate cancer awareness and funds for research.”

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John Loussia on Mt. Kilimanjaro wearing his blue boxers.

The mountain, the boxer shorts and the U-M fund

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by what’s above the clouds,” says John. “I remember as a kid, looking out an airplane window and wondering what it would feel like to stand on a mountain top and look down.” That fascination was further ignited in high school, when he read The Snows of Kilimanjaro. “Hemingway’s storytelling and the mystical quality people attribute to Kilimanjaro stayed with me – I’ve wanted to climb it ever since.”

For a while, it looked like cancer would keep him from realizing his dream to climb ‘Kili.’

“Treatment left me feeling weak, and I tired easily,” he explains. “I couldn’t make it through a round of golf – my friends thought I was crazy to even think about it.”

But modifications to his medications Hussain made in response to a rising PSA eventually resulted in a rebound in Loussia’s energy level. He began the training at what it takes to climb mountains and set 2015 as his year to climb Kilimanjaro.

And climb he did. It took five days to climb 16,000 feet to the summit. While that achievement would have been more than enough for most people, John chose the moment of his victory to honor his pledge to draw attention to prostate cancer.

Prior to the climb, Hussain told John about U-M’s Blue Boxer Fund which uses blue boxers as a symbol of solidarity in the face of prostate cancer.

Just before summiting Kilimanjaro, with temperatures hovering in the 30s, John put on his blue boxers.

“I was determined to use my climb to get people’s attention,” he says, “especially younger men. Guys think they’re invincible. My story shows how important it is to take your health seriously and get tested. Hopefully, it also shows that cancer doesn’t have to keep you from realizing your dreams.”

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