Prostate cancer

Walter Whitehorse's uncommon prostate cancer story

Walter Whitehorse prostate cancer survivor

A life rich with history. There are a lot of remarkable things about Walter Whitehorse’s 96 years of life.

Walter, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, grew up during the Great Depression, enlisted in the Navy as a teen during World War II, met the late Queen Elizabeth II (then a princess) during his Navy service, and spent several decades working at his family business.

He’s also an 18-year survivor of metastatic prostate cancer.

“It’s certainly uncommon,” said Walter’s oncologist, Dr. Robert Hegeman, director of the general hematology and oncology group, and medical oncology outreach for the UW Carbone Cancer Center. “I’m delighted to say he’s done remarkably and unexpectedly well.”

In fact, Walter has not been on any form of treatment since 2019. Hegeman said Walter hasn’t had any additional cancer growth, and his level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) remains low.

Walter is grateful to feel good.

“He hasn’t really had much for side effects other than hot flashes during a period of time,” said Walter’s daughter, Ruth Ann Whitehorse-Burns.

Walter was born in 1926, a few years shy of the start of the Great Depression, and he recalls how hard his parents worked to support their family.

Walter’s father, Ralph Rubin, was an immigrant from Odesa, Ukraine, who made his living through sales. Ralph often jumped freight train cars to travel between states, but in one attempt he slipped and was pulled under the train, resulting in him losing both legs. A short time after his accident, Ralph met Walter’s mother, Annie Greencrow of the Winnebago Tribe, now Ho-Chunk Nation and the two got married.

Walter and his siblings spent much of their time in the care of Annie’s family in Black River Falls while their parents traveled around the U.S. to sell items made by the tribe.

“My mother, she would dress up in her Indian garb and they would go to cities all through the South.” Walter said. “They would spend most of the winter making goods for sale.”

Walter’s family eventually set down roots in the Madison area. Walter said he liked school but he was behind for his age, having previously spent time at an Indian boarding school. He recalled one teacher who spent extra time helping him catch up to peers.

“She could see what I was capable of doing,” he said.

Walter and his younger brother Harry both enlisted in the Navy during WWII. Walter trained as a radarman and served on two ships, one a destroyer and the other a communications ship used as the dignitary ship during the Yalta Conference, which is how he met Princess Elizabeth.

Hegeman, a history buff, enjoyed hearing Walter’s tale of bribing his crewmates with a few dollars to be able to take the watch shift outside of her room. When Princess Elizabeth emerged in the morning, Walter greeted her with a smile and a wink.

After leaving the service, Walter spent some time working as a projectionist in Chicago and met his wife, Marie. The two moved back to Madison, where Walter trained as a mechanic and spent his career working at his and Marie’s business, Chief Auto Parts. Aside from Ruth Ann, the couple raised four sons.

The Whitehorse name is prominent in the Madison area. Madison’s Annie Greencrow Whitehorse Middle School is named for Walter’s mother. Walter’s brother Harry, who died in 2017, was a very accomplished artist whose work is on public display in several spots around Madison.

Walter’s prostate cancer diagnosis came in 2004, after a screening showed he had an elevated PSA level. Hegeman, who became Walter’s oncologist in 2019, said Walter’s records show he was immediately put on Lupron, a common hormone therapy given by injections for advanced stage patients to slow cancer growth. Walter continued with hormone therapy until 2019, when Hegeman decided to stop it due to concern for potential future side effects.

“We just basically decided he was doing so great for so long, he might do just as well off of the Lupron shots and we can see if his PSA remains low,” Hegeman said. “Indeed it did, and he’s done great even without the Lupron shots for the last three years.”

Hegeman said Walter’s cancer is still present, but it is not advancing. Walter continues to see Hegeman regularly for check-ups and monitoring.

Walter doesn’t recall having many side effects even during his years of treatment.

“The treatments weren’t much more than a shot and that was it,” Walter said.

Hegeman looks forward to every appointment with Walter to hear more about his life experiences, his Native American heritage, and his time in the Navy.

“I feel like those kinds of stories are something just so special,” Hegeman said. “I consider it an honor to be able to talk to him now and then, and be involved in his care.”