On TODAY Monday, James Michael Tyler, the actor who played sarcastic coffee shop employee Gunther on “Friends,” opened up about his struggle with prostate cancer since being diagnosed in September 2018.
Tyler told TODAY’s Craig Melvin that the illness had not been caught early and had advanced to other parts of his body.
“I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, which had spread to my bones,” Tyler explained. “I’ve been dealing with that diagnosis for almost the past three years. … It’s stage 4 (now). Late stage cancer. So eventually, you know, it’s gonna probably get me.”
Tyler said that the illness was first caught during an annual checkup.
“I was 56 years old at the time, and they screen for PSA, which is prostate-specific antigen,” Tyler explained. “That came back at an extraordinarily high number … So I knew immediately when I went online and I saw the results of my blood test and blood work that there was obviously something quite wrong there. Nearly immediately, my doctor called me and said ‘Hey, I need you to come in tomorrow because I suspect that you may have quite a serious problem with your prostate.'”
After additional testing, Tyler was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. He was referred to Dr. Matthew Rettig, a research scientist and oncologist at UCLA, who was able to use genetic testing to help Tyler determine that the illness was genetic, not environmental.
Tyler embarked on hormone therapy, which he said “worked amazingly for about a year,” allowing him to “go about life regularly” while taking a regimen of three drugs.
“All I had to do was take a pill in the morning and the night, and boom, life was pretty much normal,” said Tyler, noting that he had even appeared on TODAY during that period for another “Friends” reunion. “… I had it then, but (was) able to function normally. … I was feeling fine, honestly. I had no symptoms, I didn’t feel any symptoms. And it was very easy to regulate.”
While the early days were optimistic, Tyler said that the cancer eventually spread to his bones and spine, leading to paraplegia, or paralysis of the lower body. Tyler said that the cancer mutated “right at the time of the pandemic.”
“I missed going in for a test, which was not a good thing,” Tyler said. “So the cancer decided to mutate at the time of the pandemic, and so it’s progressed.”
Tyler said that he is currently undergoing chemotherapy which is “aggressively” fighting the cancer. However, he wanted to emphasize that screening and early diagnosis can lead to far better prognoses.
“There are other options available to men if they catch it before me,” Tyler said. “Next time you go in for just a basic exam or your yearly checkup, please ask your doctor for a PSA test. It’s easily detectable. … If it spreads beyond the prostate to the bones, which is most prevalent in my form, it can be a lot more difficult to deal with.”
“PSA screening can be done on men of any age,” Rettig, Tyler’s oncologist, told TODAY. “The idea of PSA screening is to identify the cancer and diagnose the prostate cancer at a much earlier stage before it has spread, when it is curable with things such as surgery or radiation.”
Screening recommendations vary: The Prostate Cancer Foundation recommends that men at higher risk like Black men or men with a family history of cancer be screened at the age of 40; the organization recommends men discuss screening with their doctor beginning at age 45. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends men ages 55 to 69 talk to their doctors about PSA screenings. The American Cancer Society recommends men who are at average risk begin conversations with their doctor at age 50; advice varies for men at higher risk of disease. It’s important to know your family history and discuss it with your doctor.
“A lot of men, if they catch this early, it’s easily treatable,” Tyler stressed. “I don’t want people to have to go through what I’ve been going through. This is not … an easy process.”
Tyler said that the illness kept him from appearing in person at the “Friends” reunion that aired on HBO Max in late May. Instead, he appeared on Zoom.
“I wanted to be a part of that, and initially I was going to be on the stage, at least, with them, and be able to take part in all the festivities,” Tyler said. “It was bittersweet, honestly. I was very happy to be included. It was my decision not to be a part of that physically and make an appearance on Zoom, basically, because I didn’t wanna bring a downer on it, you know? … I didn’t want to be like, ‘Oh, and by the way, Gunther has cancer.'”
Tyler said that he enjoyed the opportunity to make his appearance “light-hearted” and “connect with” the cast again. Many of his fellow castmates are aware of his illness, as are the show’s producers, and have been supportive of him.
He added that now, his goal is to encourage people to get screened, hoping to “save just one life” with his message.
“That’s my only reason for coming out like this and letting people know,” Tyler explained. “That’s my new role.”
Tyler said that throughout this process, he has been surrounded by an “extraordinary” support group with a lot of “people praying” for his health. He said he uses a “good sense of humor” to cope, and sets realistic goals to help him get through each day.
“It’s made me, personally, just realize how important every moment is, every day,” Tyler said. “And fighting. Don’t give up. Keep fighting. Keep yourself as light as possible. And have goals. Set goals. My goal this past year was to see my 59th birthday. I did that, May 28th. My goal now is to help save at least one life by coming out with this news.”
Kerry Breen is a reporter and associate editor for TODAY.com, where she reports on health news, pop culture and more. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.
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