How a Pair of Blue Boxers Ended Up on Mount Kilimanjaro

June 15, 2016 7:00 AM

After a prostate cancer diagnosis, John Loussia encouraged other men to take their health seriously, an effort that took him to Africa’s tallest peak.

How did a stage IV prostate cancer patient end up at the top of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro wearing nothing but his boxer shorts?

It’s a story that could inspire many to reach for the clouds.

In 1968, at age 13, John Loussia immigrated to the United States from Iraq with his family. His parents built a successful grocery business in metropolitan Detroit. Growing up in the family business, Loussia worked side by side with eight siblings. In 1991, he went solo, establishing his own grocery wholesale business and achieving his own slice of the American dream.

For Loussia, who married and had four children and six grandchildren, this meant hard work and sacrifice. All too often, it also included taking his good health for granted.

“I’ve always worked long hours, and never took the time to see a doctor,” he said in late 2015, just a few months before his death in April 2016. “But since I never had any health concerns, I figured I didn’t need to.”

Loussia’s wife saw things differently. For his 50th birthday, she made him a doctor’s appointment and asked him to continue with annual checkups.

Five years later, a routine prostate blood test for prostate-specific antigen levels sent Loussia through a set of biopsies with a urologist, along with close monitoring of his rising PSA levels.

It was the second biopsy in 2011 that brought surprising and grave news: Loussia was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. The cancer had metastasized to his right hip, and he had two enlarged lymph nodes. Scans also showed a small spot on the brain; a subsequent MRI confirmed it was growing.

At that point Loussia, his wife and a daughter, who is a physician, decided to seek treatment at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“As we researched where to go, Dr. (Maha) Hussain’s name kept coming up,” he said. “Right away, we felt comfortable with her. We were impressed by her passion for research and her compassion for helping patients.”

Hussain, a medical oncologist in the U-M Cancer Center’s Prostate Cancer/Genitourinary Oncology Program, oversaw Loussia’s treatment from that day until his death.

His treatment consisted of vigilant medical management and frequent check-ins with Hussain — and a promise to help raise prostate cancer awareness and funds for research. Hussain told Loussia about U-M’s Blue Boxer Fund, which uses blue boxers as a symbol of solidarity in the face of prostate cancer.

The mountain, the boxer shorts and the U-M fund

Hearing of the Blue Boxer Fund rekindled a past passion for Loussia.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by what’s above the clouds,” he said. “I remember as a kid, looking out an airplane window and wondering what it would feel like to stand on a mountaintop and look down.”

That fascination was further ignited in high school, when he read The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

“Hemingway’s storytelling and the mystical quality people attribute to Kilimanjaro stayed with me — I’ve wanted to climb it ever since,” he said.

For a while, it looked like cancer would keep him from realizing his dream to climb ‘Kili.’

“Treatment left me feeling weak, and I tired easily,” he explained. “I couldn’t make it through a round of golf — my friends thought I was crazy to even think about it.”

But modifications to his medications Hussain made in response to rising PSA levels eventually resulted in a rebound in Loussia’s energy level. He began training in the summer of 2014 by walking 3 to 6 miles a day and set 2015 as his year to climb Kilimanjaro.

And climb he did. It took five days to reach the 19,340-foot summit (which is just about the average length of time). While that achievement would have been more than enough for most people, Loussia chose the moment of his victory to honor his pledge to draw attention to prostate cancer.

With U-M’s Blue Boxer Fund in mind, just before summiting Kilimanjaro, with temperatures hovering in the 30s, Loussia donned his pair.

“I was determined to use my climb to get people’s attention, especially younger men,” he said. “Guys think they’re invincible. My story shows how important it is to take your health seriously and get tested. Hopefully, it also shows that cancer doesn’t have to keep you from realizing your dreams.”

Cancer didn’t stop Loussia from realizing his. He died in April, but his awareness efforts live on.

“My dad once told me that in life anytime you have something you would like to accomplish, you set goals for yourself, and even if you don't reach those goals, you regroup and set new goals until your mission is accomplished,” says his son Brian Loussia. “He fought cancer by setting goals for himself and fighting to achieve these goals at any cost. His climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro was the perfect example of just that.”

To support Loussia’s legacy, make a gift to the Blue Boxer Prostate Cancer Research Fund.