WASHINGTON — Things in the nation’s capital just got a little hairier.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and his staff — well, the male members anyway — have been growing mustaches as part of “Movember” to raise awareness about prostate cancer.
The Oshkosh Republican and his chief of staff, Tony Blando, have a personal connection to the cause. Blando has repeatedly battled the disease, and when he was first diagnosed in 2003, it was Johnson who stepped up to help him.
They didn’t know each other at the time, but Johnson overheard Blando talk about his plight at a meeting. The senator, who at the time was chief executive of a plastics manufacturer, then found Blando in the Oshkosh phone book, called him up and offered to fly him with his family to get ground-breaking treatment.
Blando never took him up on the offer, but the entreaty sparked a friendship that has deepened ever since. Johnson mentored Blando while Blando was president of Unified Catholic Schools System of Oshkosh from 2006 until 2010. Johnson then tapped Blando to work on his Senate campaign. He now relies on Blando daily to oversee his offices in Washington and Wisconsin.
“This is all about raising awareness for prostate cancer, other men’s cancers and other men’s health issues,” Johnson said in an interview Tuesday, noting that for Blando, early testing was key.
“He was able to have a diagnosis at an early age and so he’s alive at a more elderly age because he took this threat seriously.”
Blando said most people think of prostate cancer as something that only affects older men.
“But it’s a disease that is becoming, I think more and more common in younger people,” he said.
Blando had a blood test in 2003, part of a routine physical after he turned 40, that showed heightened levels of Prostate-Specific Antigens, or PSAs. After more tests confirmed he had cancer, he decided to undergo surgery to remove his prostate gland and the tissue surrounding it.
At the time, he was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a professor and department chair for the U.S. Army Reserve Officers Training Corps’ Military Science and Leadership Departments at UW-Oshkosh, UW-Green Bay, Ripon College, Marian College, Lawrence University, St. Norbert College and Bellin College of Nursing.
In 2006, just after he retired and took the post leading the Unified Catholic Schools System of Oshkosh, the cancer came back. Blando said facing it the second time, when he had three young children, was far more difficult than serving on the battlefield in the Gulf War, when he led a company of men through minefields.
“When your kids are little, it just gosh, it just , it was really really hard on me,” he said. “It hit me really, really hard because of the kids.”
One of those kids graduated college this year, another is attending college and the third is a junior in high school. As for Blando, he has been cancer free for nine years.
“I think it’s important for younger, younger men to be tested,” he said, “especially those that are at higher risk — so that they can be treated and they can get a little longer in the tooth and get some gray whiskers.”