Recovered from prostate cancer, Pecan Grove man back in the saddle for Houston rodeo ranch sorting

Testing before a knee replacement uncovered Christopher French's prostate cancer. Treatment helped him recover and return to RodeoHouston

Christopher French wasn’t particularly concerned when blood work done in the run-up to his knee replacement surgery indicated he might be at risk for prostate cancer.

The Pecan Grove resident, 69, figured he was fine because he didn’t have any symptoms. However, many patients who are diagnosed with prostate cancer are asymptomatic, so his doctor urged him to see a urologist.

French put it off for another six months. Fortunately, his doctor, Dr. Steven Spencer of Katy, also happens to be his close friend. Spencer kept coaxing him to get an appointment until he finally saw Memorial Hermann urologist Dr. Ramesh Krishnan in the fall of 2021.

French was shocked when tests showed he had prostate cancer. He’d caught it just in time — the cancer was on the verge of spreading, so Krishnan recommended removing his prostate to prevent that from happening.

“I felt like I had a black cloud hanging over my head,” French said. “I was just imagining the worst.”

That surgery meant French needed to sit out last year’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo , where he is an avid competitor in ranch sorting . French has been obsessed with the sport since a friend introduced him to it six years ago, so missing the rodeo was devastating.

This year, though, he’s recovered from his November 2021 prostatectomy, and tests have not detected any further risk of prostate cancer. He experienced some incontinence, or the loss of the ability to control urine, after the prostatectomy, but another procedure in December has him feeling back to normal.

Now French is back in the saddle and looking forward to competing with his horse, Sadie, at RodeoHouston on March 5. When he does, he’ll have a different attitude. He used to be very competitive, but this year, he’s planning to soak in the moment.

“When I was able to take a break, I realized, ‘You know, that’s fun, but it doesn’t have to be as intense,’” he said. “Now I really have a good time — win, lose or draw.”

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Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer among American men, aside from skin cancer.  The American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 288,300 new cases diagnosed in 2023, and an estimated 34,700 deaths from the disease.

Fortunately, it’s one of the most treatable forms of cancer; the five- and 10-year survival rates for people living with prostate cancer in the United States are each 98 percent . Treatment is particularly effective if it’s detected early through a protein-specific antigen test, which is used to screen for prostate cancer in men.

“It’s been proven that testing really helps to diagnose early,” Krishnan said. “And in patients who need treatment, if you get them treated early, it’s curative.”

Finding a new obsession

French grew up in New Jersey and on Long Island and has been riding horses since he was 11 years old. When he was younger, he worked at a state park that boarded and rented horses; then it got a horse racing license, which meant it could be used as a race track. That led to him meeting a Lubbock man who asked French, then 23, to move to Texas and work on a ranch. He's been a Texan ever since.

French went on to own a construction company, but he’s remained an avid rider. Six years ago, a friend introduced him to ranch sorting, an equestrian sport where a pair of riders work together to herd cattle between pens.

He was hooked from the start. He loved the unpredictability of the sport, because he never knew how the cows were going to behave. He also loved the camaraderie that came from working with a partner.

“I like to work with people who are just starting out, to keep them wanting to do it more,” he said. “If you're kind to somebody and you give them good instructions and you pat them on the back, good or bad, they're going to want to come back and do it again.”

He began looking for ranch sorting competitions every weekend. He’s participated in the World Finals organized by the Ranch Sorting Association of America , as well as the Ranch Sorting National Championships . This year will be the fourth time he’s participated in RodeoHouston.

He’ll be riding his horse, Sadie, who’s been his partner for the past six years. Her name is inspired by Sadie Hawkins, because French had been looking for a “dance partner” until he found her.

“I think she was looking for a dance partner, too,” he said.

An unexpected diagnosis

Everything changed for French when testing before his knee replacement surgery showed an elevated prostate specific antigen level. There is no specific PSA level that indicates prostate cancer, but anything between 4 and 10 is a “gray zone,” Krishnan said. French’s was 6.9.

Krishnan did a second test that also indicated French was at risk. An MRI, followed by a biopsy, confirmed the diagnosis.

French was shocked because he wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, but Krishnan said that’s common with prostate cancer. "A lot of people come in with no symptoms and have prostate cancer,” he said.

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Prostate cancer be treated through radiation or surgery . French’s cancer was on the verge of spreading, so Krishnan recommended a prostatectomy to remove his prostate.

French worried about the risk for side effects, like incontinence and erectile dysfunction, which are fairly common but usually temporary, but he opted to follow Krishnan’s advice and had the surgery in November 2021.

“I trust my doctor and I trusted Dr. Krishnan,” he said. “It went well.”

Riding again

French needed to take a few months away from riding after the surgery. He then started slowly, riding about 20 minutes at a time, and gradually regained his stamina.

“He was back to normal activity and doing the stuff he loves, which is mainly working with horses,” Krishnan said.

For the incontinence, Krishnan recommended a second surgery called a male sling procedure in December 2022. The outpatient procedure involves placing a supportive sling around the urethral bulb to move it into a new position and support the bladder neck.

The surgery was effective for French.

“The leakage stopped, and it stopped immediately,” he said.

He needed to take another 10 weeks off riding as he recovered, but he and Sadie started practicing again this month. He expects to be ready in time for his ranch sorting event at the rodeo on March 5.

French is looking forward to the competition. He plans to enjoy himself, instead of being as intense as he was in the past.

He knows he was fortunate that the blood tests he took before his knee surgery uncovered his prostate cancer. And he’s grateful that his doctor kept pushing him to see a urologist until he listened.

“I’m just a lucky, lucky guy,” he said.