By Ralph Blum
According to the National Cancer Institute, African Americans may have the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world. Furthermore, black men often develop the disease at a younger age than white men, and the cancer is often more aggressive.
Although the National Institute of Health is conducting studies to determine why this is the case, the reason for this disparity between African American and Caucasian men is complex and not yet clear. In part, it may reflect unequal access to quality health care because they tend to be diagnosed at more advanced stages, i.e., they wait till it’s too late.
While all African American men are at significantly higher risk, black men with an immediate family member who had prostate cancer have a one in three chance of developing the disease. The risk rises to 83% when two immediate family members have the disease, and with three family members, the risk mounts to 97%.
So it is absolutely vital to get yourself checked out before symptoms appear that indicate the presence of prostate cancer. Symptoms include: the need to urinate frequently (especially at night); difficult, painful, burning or bloody urination; painful ejaculation; frequent pain or stiffness in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs. Once symptoms appear, it means that the cancer has already reached a more advanced stage and chances of survival are considerably reduced.
In June 2003, Nation of Islam leader, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, announced the launch of his Prostate Cancer Foundation (LFPCF). Minister Farrakhan, himself a survivor of prostate cancer, apparently saw the high death rate among African American men diagnosed with the disease as a call to action to the black community, and the strongest persuasion for early screening. “If that is not motivation to save your life,” he said, “then nothing can motivate you.”
Despite the lack of conclusive study results, one thing is certain: early annual screening for prostate cancer is critical for African American men and should begin at age forty to forty-five.
Aside from financial concerns, another factor that deters many African American men from getting regular screening for prostate cancer, is that it involves not only the PSA blood test but also the primitive yet effective doctor-inserting-finger-up-your-anus technique known as the Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) to which black men have a serious aversion. Minister Farrakhan put it rather more delicately: “As men, we are difficult in terms of allowing ourselves to be tested.” And that is a problem.
A word of caution: When I alerted two concerned black friends that “free annual pre-screening, educational materials and medical referrals were available” via the Louis Farrakhan Prostate Cancer Foundation in Chicago, they called the number provided on the LFPCF website, and got a Toyota dealership in Houston. It appears that the website has not been updated since 2003.
When I checked with a black minister who is concerned about prostate cancer in his community, he said, “The Rev. Farrakhan sometimes fails to follow through. Usually, it’s a question of funds. The African American community would welcome hearing words of encouragement from black authority figures like Oprah, Tavis Smiley and Rev. Jesse Jackson.”
Meanwhile, it is left to local groups to motive men to get tested. According to Ron Brewington, Associate Professor of Broadcasting Journalism at Santa MonicaCollege, the Trinity Baptist Church on Jefferson Boulevard in Los Angeles does provide screenings. Addressing a group of men at the church recently, Brewington said, “I’d rather have a finger up my butt than have them throw dirt in my face. The fact that you’re here tells me you want to live. I applaud each of you.”
Deaths from prostate cancer in the United States have declined, primarily because more than 90 percent of prostate cancers are diagnosed at an early stage However, African American men are still more than twice as likely as white men to die of the disease largely because they continue to be diagnosed at more advanced stages. So if you are a 40 year old African American man, consider this a three-alarm wake-up call.
About Ralph Blum (1932-2016):
Ralph H. Blum was a cultural anthropologist and author, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University with a degree in Russian Studies. His reporting from the Soviet Union, the first of its kind for The New Yorker (1961—1965), included two three-part series on Russian cultural life. He wrote for various magazines, among them Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue. Blum has published three novels and five nonfiction books. He lived with prostate cancer, without radical intervention, for twenty years.