Life after prostate cancer: NMA and top leaders launch campaign against leading killer of Black men - National Medical Association
WHILE 1 in 6 men will get prostate cancer, the disease occurs almost 70 percent more often in African-Americans as it does in White men, and African-American men are twice as likely to die. African-American men, in fact, have the highest prostate cancer rate in the world.
Alarmed by the large number of Blacks being diagnosed with prostate cancer, a national mobilization effort is underway to teach African-American men how to survive the potentially deadly disease.
The National Medical Association is launching a major campaign against the disease. Howard University and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan are working separately and as a team to battle the disease. And a host of Black notables who have survived the disease are speaking out, sharing extremely personal stories of fear and determination, in hopes of raising public awareness.
Howard University Hospital is in the last year of a five-year study examining how genetics play a part in prostate cancer among African-Americans. The most in-depth study of its kind, the African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer Study Network is a collaborative effort between Howard University and the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health. "We have some of the best and brightest minds working on this study," says Rick Kitties, the spokesperson for the study at Howard. "We hope to achieve a better understanding of genes associated with the risk of prostate cancer, and whether there is a type of 'super' prostate cancer affecting Black men that is totally different, more aggressive, than the type that affects other races."
Earlier this year, Minister Farrakhan, who underwent a successful brachytherapy procedure, which involved implanting radioactive seeds, each smaller than a rice grain, into the tumors inside the prostate gland, joined forces with Howard University to set up a prostate cancer endowment fund. He hopes to raise $1.5 million during the next five years to help pay for prostate-related services for men from disadvantaged backgrounds. "The greatest encouragement that we should give to our Brothers to [get regular examinations] is to look at all of those who have died from it, and the high death rate, particularly among Black men," he says. "I want to use my experience to encourage Black men everywhere to take the examination."
But Minister Farrakhan is not the only prominent African-American to be struck by the disease that will victimize more that 220,000 men in the United States, and kill 29,000, this year alone.
Harry Belafonte became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Foundation after he had prostate cancer surgery. The actor/activist says he is now cancer-free and that there were no post-surgery complications.
Former United Nations ambassador and former mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young went public with his prostate cancer in hopes of helping others cope with the disease. Doctors at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta performed a radical prostatectomy on Young. He says the surgery was successful and that the cancer has not spread.
Other notables who have successfully beaten prostate cancer include Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes, Sidney Poitier, former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, former South African president Nelson Mandela and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The causes of prostate cancer are not well understood. But officials at the National Medical Association, which convened a national mobilization conference in Washington, D. C., believe that age, family history, race and dietary factors play a part. The association is so concerned with closing the disparity gap in prostate cancer that it has issued a national call to action with the goal of pinpointing the exact causes of prostate cancer and why Black men are victimized so disproportionately. "We are eager to educate people about enlarged prostate and prostate cancer, which continues to significantly impact and even claim lives of African-American fathers and grandfathers," says National Medical Association President L. Natalie Carroll, M.D.
There are many factors that contribute to health care disparities among African-American men. Studies cited by the NMA show that Black men are more likely to avoid or delay seeking preventive health services, including regular prostate health screenings. Compared to the general population, African-Americans see a primary care provider 33 percent less often. Another major barrier is uncertainty among doctors in treating Black men. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that 28 percent of Blacks say that they have no regular doctor.
But Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and a prostate cancer survivor, says that when it comes to health, there is really no excuse. "African-American men need to take responsibility for their own health, and that includes seeing a physician or other health professional for an annual physical examination that includes evaluation of their prostate."
The American Urological Association and the American Cancer Society recommend that men have a yearly prostate checkup beginning at age 50. African-American men should begin at 45. An annual prostate checkup includes a discussion of symptoms, a digital rectal exam and a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. Treatments that are commonly used are surgery to remove the cancer, radiation therapy to kill the cancer cells with high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays, and hormone therapy to stop the cancer cells from growing.
New treatments offer promise, as do new methods to get the word out that, with early detection and proper treatment, prostate cancer does not have to be a killer in the Black community. The radiation seed implantation treatment that was used to treat Minister Farrakhan was pioneered by Dr. Alfred Goldson, professor and chairman of the Radiation Oncology department at Howard University Hospital. It is now universally used as a treatment option. "One of our projects is to further embellish our whole prostate cancer initiative and to make an even more profound and integrated prostate cancer effort at Howard University Hospital" says Dr. Goldson, who is studying whether long-term increased doses of Selenium or vitamin E will prevent prostate cancer. "We're going to bring the genetics people together with the treatment people and the preventive people and the screening people and the social service people and make an even more focused entity so that the hospital will be an even greater resource for our community."
Famed pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson, who survived prostate cancer surgery, says prostate cancer doesn't have to kill anyone. "The diseases of the prostate gland are eminently treatable if detected early and treated aggressively and appropriately," he says. "There is no reason that a person diagnosed with these diseases cannot live a long, productive and highly enjoyable life."