Bob Fort's Story

Local stock car driver a prostate cancer survivor

By: Kay Bensing, reprinted with permission, www.pottsmerc.com
Originally published on January 8, 2012 

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COLLEGEVILLE - Bob Fort Jr. is passionate about stock car racing. At 62, he has been driving competitively for more than half a century, and he has racked up an impressive number of wins.

But two years ago, the Collegeville resident of 35 years took on a challenge he was not expecting - a battle with prostate cancer.

When Fort was 8 years old, his father signed him up to compete in a go-kart race and he still gets excited when he recalls the moments right after his first race.

“I told my dad, ‘I want to do this until the day I die.’”

Fort described his father as a quiet man, a World War II veteran who delighted him when he said, “You may, Robert. You may!”

Fort’s father loved stock car racing, but he never raced himself. As a child and teenager, the son’s dream never wavered.

“Some friends of my dad were famous drivers and when they stopped by our house I always listened to their stories,” the veteran driver offered. He said he knew then he wanted to be more than a spectator in this fast-paced, high-risk sport that was becoming more popular as its fan base increased.

Fort has lived his dream for more than 50 years. He has been at the top of his game for many of those years, winning 330 circle track and drag races.

Circle tracks are actually an oval, with as many as 40 driver traveling at speeds of almost 200 mph. For the last two years, Fort has been in the Top 10 of the 422 All-Star Drag Racers. He races with 422 Motor Sports in Oaks.

For those unfamiliar, stock cars may look like replicas of cars you see on the street, but they have been modified and built to regulation standards for the car’s chassis, suspension and engine. All stock cars must be configured identically. Drag racing, however, is done on a straight track, with only two cars competing against each other.

A consulting engineer for the last 20 years for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Fort spends many weekends at race tracks, mostly on the East Coast. To fund the pursuit, stock car racers usually have sponsors, just like NASCAR drivers, to defray the high costs of the sport, according to Fort.

When a driver wins a race, his adrenaline is pumping; his heart is racing and he can’t wait until his next time on the track. But there are also the downs after the losses.

“At these times,” Fort said, “your pride is bruised and your anger takes over - until the next day.”

And accidents do happen. The longer a driver races, the greater the chance for injury, despite new technology, safety gear and racing associations’ quest to make the sport as safe as it can be.

Fort said it is essential that each driver takes responsibility to remain healthy and in condition. Drivers work hard to maintain upper body strength, and they hydrate themselves well before and after races. Fort said in a three-hour race he loses as much as 11 pounds of water weight. After drinking a case of vitamin- and mineral-fortified water, he is back to his baseline weight by the next day.

Married, with four children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Fort said his only son, Rob, is also a race car driver. Together, they manage their own team, Fort Racing. Their logo: “Racing is Our Passion.” The Fort website - www.FortRacing.com - offers more information about this family business.

Fort said of the injuries he has endured during his 50 years

His wife of 42 years takes his participation in the sport in stride. “I told her before we got married, I spend my time hunting, fishing, shooting guns and racing - and if you can deal with that, we can get married.”

Then two years ago, in 2010, the race driver hit a bump of a different kind. During an annual physical examination required by racing associations, his primary care physician suggested Fort see a urologist.

His protein-specific antigen (PSA) test, a common marker used to diagnose prostate cancers and other prostate disorders, was more elevated than it had been in the previous year.

The PSA and digital rectal exam are the initial screening tests for prostate cancer in asymptomatic men age 50 and older. In high-risk patients, who are smokers, of African-American descent or have a family history of prostate cancer, the PSA and rectal exam should be done annually, starting at age 40.

A diagnosis of prostate cancer is not made until a biopsy of the prostate gland confirms the cancer. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the better the chance of a cure after treatment Prostate cancer has the second highest annual mortality rate in men, ranking at 11 percent; the first is lung/bronchus cancer at 29 percent, according to 2010 American Cancer Society statistics.

Fort followed his doctor’s advice and was seen promptly by Dr.Laurence H. Belkoff in his Bala Cynwyd office. Belkoff is one of 14 physicians whose practice, Urologic Consultants of Southeastern Pennsylvania, diagnoses and treats both men and women for diseases of the genital-urinary tract and the male reproductive system.

Chairman of the Department of Specialty Surgeries and the Division of Urology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) in Philadelphia, Belkoff is also a clinical professor at Drexel University School of Medicine. He is also a member of the American Urologic Association.

Clinical research is an important component of Belkoff ’s practice. He has a special interest and expertise in radiation therapy as a treatment for prostate cancer.

After Belkoff reviewed Fort’s history, PSA test and results of other diagnostic studies, he did a thorough physical exam. He then ordered a prostate tissue biopsy.

Fort, who described himself as a “tough guy,” said the biopsy caused some discomfort. “But I wouldn’t say it was severe pain,” he noted. But when the physician told him he had prostate cancer, Fort’s worst-case scenario was confirmed.

Fort said after Belkoff was totally open with him about his diagnosis, his trust in his physician was cemented. Belkoff said he and his colleagues are candid with their patients about their diagnosis and treatment.

“You never want to create fear in patients, but it is important to use the word cancer when the diagnosis is confirmed,” said Belkoff. “We document our conversations, but some patients will tell us ‘You told me I had advanced disease, but you didn’t say cancer.’”

Belkoff said educating patients about their cancer helps them begin to deal with it.

Fort talked lightly of the day he learned he had cancer. “I never asked the doctor then if I was going to die. I just wanted to know if I would be able to race again,” he said.

Belkoff said technology has improved and new treatments are offered for prostate cancer patients that weren’t available even a decade ago. “Two of my partners perform robotic surgical procedures frequently as the treatment of choice for many patients with prostate cancer,” he said.

“In Bob’s case, my first choice of treatment was removal of the prostate through robotic surgery. Bob opted to not have this alternative as it would have meant missing more races and possibly more side effects,” explained Belkoff.

Since radiation was a reasonable option, the physician agreed to that form of treatment.

Known as Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), the type of radiation Fort received is an advanced mode of high-precision radiotherapy that utilizes computer-controled linear accelerators to deliver the exact doses of radiation.

IMRT is capable of stopping cancer cells from dividing and growing, thus eliminating tumors with fewer side effects of radiation.

Fort received 44 IMRT treatments over an eight-week period at Philadelphia Treatment, Radiation Oncology Center. He said the only side effect he experienced was decreased energy on some days. But it was not enough to cause him to withdraw from four races he competed in while receiving his treatment.

After his treatment was completed, Fort had a new passion: encouraging his fellow race drivers and his fans to follow his example and be screened for prostate cancer.

“I really hammered these guys to follow my lead,” Fort shared. Of the 60 racers who got his message and were screened, four were found to have prostate cancer.

“I feel like I saved their lives,” added Fort. And Belkoff agrees the race car driver made a difference in educating these men.

“Bob is much more credible talking to other race drivers like himself about his experience with prostate cancer compared to a physician in a white coat,” said Belkoff. Fort said the race drivers are comfortable with him talking about some of the side effects of treatment, like urinary and erectile dysfunction.

It has been a year and a half since Fort completed his treatment for prostate cancer. He has not slowed down. He has two passions now - educating his fellow race drivers about prostate cancer and racing. And he still works for PennDOT.

Fort has said he will retire from circle track racing after he completes six races he is scheduled for, but he will continue with drag racing and working with his team.

He said he accepts the fact that younger drivers have quicker reflexes. And if younger drivers believe they are immortal, well, Fort said, age really has nothing to do with that.

With a wry smile, he said, “I don’t think I’m going to die, either.”