John Kerry and Don Imus

The silence on prostate cancer

By John Kerry and Don Imus
June 21, 2009
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WE’VE SPENT 15 years beating each other up on the air. But when the studio doors closed and that red light went off, we both had to confront far tougher words: prostate cancer. We both read the deadly statistics: 28,000 American men lost each year to this disease.

We’re lucky that thanks to the best medical care in the world and the support of our families, we’re celebrating this Father’s Day with our children. Not everyone is so lucky. Today, 75 men will lose their battles with this disease. It’s too late for them - but there’s hope for millions more men. One in six American men will be diagnosed with this deadly disease at some point during their lives, including 186,000 this year.

The greatest problem is that prostate cancer remains a silent epidemic, especially among African-Americans. But when detected early and treated, the cure rate for prostate cancer is incredibly high - nearly 100 percent of men diagnosed early will be cancer-free after five years. We were both fortunate to be diagnosed early and began treatment immediately. But far too many men fail to get regular check-ups and the results are deadly. For men diagnosed after the cancer has already metastasized, there is only a 30 percent survival rate.

While men of all races need to know about prostate cancer, the incidence rate for African-Americans is shockingly 60 percent higher than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. African-Americans are more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage and thus have far higher mortality rates - 140 percent higher than any other group.

Thankfully, there have been some loud voices in the African-American community who have worked tirelessly to end the silence on prostate cancer. Tom Farrington, a prostate cancer survivor who lost his father and grandfathers to the disease, started the Prostate Health Education Network to better educate African-American men about the importance of screening.

But Farrington can’t do it alone. Federal funding should be reprioritized to increase education, raise awareness, and continue research focused on addressing prostate cancer’s impact on African-Americans. Researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School have discovered a variant of a small segment of the human genome that accounts for the higher risk of prostate cancer among African-Americans. Some progress has been made, but research efforts must continue and must be supported by the federal government in order to ensure that access to screening and treatment is color-blind.

Researchers at the Center for Prostate Cancer Research found that when there was equality in access to care and education about the disease, the prostate-specific antigen level, which is followed in patients to monitor response to treatment, was nearly identical for African-American and white men. The reality is simple - when African-American men have access to early screening and treatment, the majority diagnosed with prostate cancer will survive.

African-American men should start being screened for prostate cancer at age 45, five years earlier than men of other races. All men, regardless of race, should be screened earlier if there is a history of prostate cancer in the family.

We both had a choice to make: We could be mad that we had cancer, or get mad at cancer - and beat the disease into submission. Of course we chose to get mad at cancer, and now we’re doing our best to end the silence on prostate cancer. This is a message that needs to reach every man in America.

For this Father’s Day, don’t take no for an answer. Do whatever it takes to make sure your dads, husbands, sons, brothers, and friends know about the risks of prostate cancer. Make sure they know that when treated early, prostate cancer is almost always curable, but when diagnosed late, prostate cancer offers a much lower chance of survival. Make sure they know that screening for prostate cancer is the only option.

Senator John Kerry and radio personality Don Imus are both prostate cancer survivors.

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