By Robert Golomb
The story of Peter Latos should have had a happy ending. Born in the Bronx in 1965 and raised in the heavily Greek-American community of Astoria, this son of middle class Greek immigrants led a life that fit the tale of the American dream come true. As his brother Andrew had accomplished two years earlier, Peter, who had earned his B.S in finance from St. John’s University in 1987, graduated from Touro Law School in 1990, passing both the New Jersey and New York State bar examinations shortly thereafter.
In 1992, just two years later, Peter and Andrew established their own law firm in Astoria, Latos and Latos, which through the work of the two brothers on behalf of immigrants, small homeowners, tenants, small business entrepreneurs and personal injury clients, soon became well-known and respected throughout the tightly-knit community.
That same year Peter Latos and his wife, Julie, were blessed with the birth of their first child, Dennis; their second child, Stavros, followed two years later. Life continued to be filled with success and joy for Latos. A fitness enthusiast, he and Andrew and a few other partners opened a state-of-the-art gym in Astoria in 2000; and when several months later the Latos Brothers became investors in the First Central Bank in Astoria, they reached a position enabling them to impact directly upon the economic growth of the community.
His two sons growing happily into their mid and late teen years, his law firm, gym and bank flourishing, 2009 appeared to be just another wonderful year in Latos’ life. And then, in November of that year, his doctor gave him news that suddenly turned things upside down: stage four prostate cancer, a disease in its most advanced state that was to ravage his body for three and a half years until it finally took his life on June 29, 2013.
There are those in the medical profession who believe that the death of a man like Latos, just as the deaths of the other approximately 27,000 men who are killed by prostate cancer every year, could have been prevented. Most notable among them is Doctor David Samadi, the famed urological cancer surgeon, who started treating Latos in January 2010, several months after Latos’ final diagnosis had been made, and his tragic fate had already been sealed.
According to Dr. Samadi, whom I recently interviewed, “Peter should be alive today. Prostate cancer, with which one out of every six men in America will be diagnosed at some stage in their lives, can be detected by a simple PSA blood test. When discovered in its early stages and found to be contained within the prostate, as was the case with Peter, the disease has a cure rate of almost 100 percent.
“The irony however with Peter,” Samadi lamented, “was that his doctor did in fact perform a PSA blood test in 2008, but it was not diagnosed as prostate cancer. Had it been correctly diagnosed, it has been my professional conclusion, Peter’s cancer could have been cured, and he would be with us today. So the message of this tragedy should be simple: men should have regular PSA screening, and all doctors, not just the majority who already do, must learn how to interpret the results correctly which, while evident by stage 2, are far more difficult to detect in the disease’s earliest stages.’’
But it turns out not to be as simple as that. The United States Health Task Force, Samadi noted, recently issued a recommendation that healthy men should not undergo PSA testing for prostate cancer screening. As a result of this recommendation,’’ Samadi bemoaned, “many doctors will refrain from ordering these exams, some insurance companies will stop paying for them, and many men, now believing the tests are unnecessary, will stop asking the doctors to order them. Consequently many men who could have been saved will die.”
Further criticizing the Task Force’s recommendation, Samadi argued, “the report asserts that people have died as a result of being treated unnecessarily after false positives from the PSA screening, but they have yet to produce the name of one such person. The report also asserts that PSA is not perfect. Here, they are stating the obvious: as the doctors – of whom curiously there was not one urologist – who prepared the report know no screening test is perfect. But where is there a better test for detecting prostate cancer? There is none. And, as it stands today, PSA is the only effective screening tool doctor’s possess. So why the government seeks to limit its use is a question that needs to be answered.”
At Samadi’s invitation, I attended the Peter Latos Prostate Cancer Foundation Second Annual Event, which would be honoring Doctor Samadi that night, June 11. The Foundation, I learned, was established in October 2013 in memory of Latos who, throughout his battle with cancer, told his family and friends that he wished to create a foundation to help save lives by promoting the early detection of prostate cancer.
Through the Foundation, which now conducts regular free cancer PSA blood test drives throughout New York City and which runs workshops to educate men and their families on the importance of early screening in preventing cancer deaths, Latos’ wish is being realized.
The mood of hope and accomplishment bonded with sadness and loss was palpable that night, and it was captured in the words of the five men selected to speak: Consul General of Greece Amb. Georgios Iliopoulos, Andrew, Dennis, and Stavros Latos, and Samadi.
Ambassador Iliopoulos said that while he had not known Latos in his life, he has over the past year come to learn about Latos and grown to become a friend of the Latos family and a supporter of the Foundation. “I can feel his presence right here in the ballroom now as I speak through the love of his family and friends and through the life saving work of the foundation,” Iliopoulos said.
When Andrew followed, he spoke of his love of his brother and his hope for a future cure for prostate cancer. He then called Dennis and Stavros to stand alongside him in the front of the ballroom. Together, the three summoned Samadi to join them, presenting the doctor with a check for $20,000, made out to the Somadi Robotics Foundation. Then, in unison, Latos’ sons said, “ In the memory of our father, we give to you, Doctor Samadi, this donation to help you through the work of your foundation defeat the disease that claimed our father’s life.”
Finally, Samadi himself spoke of Peter Latos as being not only a patient, but also “a dear friend whose courage as he battled his illness will always inspire me and whose wonderful memory will live on with me throughout my life. And this generous gift offered in his name will help in the battle against prostate cancer.”
Samadi reminded the audience that June is Men’s Health Month and urged women to play an active role in their husband’s medical well-being. “ Unlike women, who pay close attention to their own health risks”, lectured Samadi, “many men believe that they will live forever…. So women, it is up to you to become the driving force behind the health of your husbands, fathers, brothers, insisting that they schedule regular and thorough medical check-ups and screening…and remind them of Peter’s plea ‘check your PSA. It’s only a blood test.’’’
The crowd listened to those same final eight words spoken posthumously from the mouth of Peter, as they watched, some in the tears, a twenty minute video taken by a friend at Peter’s request, and recently edited by Dennis, documenting Peter’s triumphs and struggles during his final year of life.
I was able to speak individually with Andrew, Julie, Dennis, and Stavros. His wife’s and brother’s thoughts seemed, I found, to coincide with those of Dennis who said to me, “I miss my father terribly, but I try to fulfill his final wish, which was never allow his death to prevent me from living my own life to the fullest. That advice and seeing the life saving work of the foundation that was built on his dream has helped me cope with his loss.”
Sadly, however, Stavros has not found that ability to cope. “I have great support from my family and friends, and I know that my father wanted me to continue living my life happily,” he told me as his eyes began to tear, “but I find as hard as I try, I still can’t. I still can’t.”
Robert Golomb is a columnist.