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Closing the Gap: A Wake-up Call About Prostate Cancer


Charlie Hill, minority engagement member and patient stakeholder, is the president and co-founder of the Hampton Roads Prostate Health Forum.

The second leading cause of male cancer death is often preventable, but far too many men are failing to take the simple steps necessary to do so. About one in nine men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their life. The good news is that it is usually treatable – if detected early. Diagnostic tools and procedures have advanced to the point where prostate cancer can often be predicted before symptoms even start.

The problem is that too many men are not having the necessary conversations with their doctors about their unique risk for prostate cancer. And the cause behind that, in many cases, is that they simply do not know that they need to be thinking about prostate cancer in the first place.

Virginia, home of the COMPPARE partners University of Virginia and Hampton University, has an opportunity to lead the nation in combating this knowledge deficit. Governor Northam declared September Prostate Cancer Awareness Month to help draw attention to a cancer that impacts more men than any other. This decision, as well as the governor’s public support, has helped to spread the word about prostate cancer, and his actions are deeply appreciated by the thousands of prostate cancer survivors living in Virginia, myself included.

But our commitment to saving the lives of men across Virginia and throughout the United States must extend beyond just one month of “awareness.” Despite its prevalence, few cancers can be as effectively mitigated with early detection, which can markedly improve not only a man’s likelihood of surviving the cancer but also his long-term quality of life.

The statistics demand that we do something different. Every three minutes a man is diagnosed with prostate cancer. Every 17 minutes a man dies from the disease. This year, more than 30,000 men are expected to die from prostate cancer nationwide. It is not only heartbreaking, but often an avoidable tragedy when a man’s prostate cancer is only discovered when it’s too late to be successfully treated.

But early detection demands education, and that doesn’t just mean reaching out to men. It means reaching their spouses, their children, their friends, and other family members: the spouse who needs to know about the impact of a healthy diet; the children who need to hear, as mine did, what dad is going through. It requires creating a culture where everyone knows that an annual, routine conversation with a doctor, including shared decision-making about prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests and digital rectal exams, could save a man’s life.

This is particularly true for African American men and Caribbean men of African ancestry, who experience prostate cancer at an even higher rate than white men – and die at twice the rate. Addressing this will require understanding why the disparity exists in the first place, which will in turn require that more African American men take part in research like COMPPARE. Different people respond differently to various treatments and treatment modalities, which only underscores the need to have a diverse group of participants.

As a survivor of prostate cancer, I know that arriving at a treatment decision is deeply personal, and one best made in close consultation with your doctor. But men across Virginia, and the United States, need to know what their options are and know how critical that knowledge is when dealing with a deadly disease.

Learn more about the Hampton Roads Prostate Health Forum.