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 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in his 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 often can be predicted before symptoms even start.
The problem is that too many men across Virginia are not having the needed 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 they need to be thinking about prostate cancer in the first place.
Virginia has an opportunity to lead the nation in combating this knowledge deficit. Gov. Ralph Northam has 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, is very helpful in getting the word out 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 must extend beyond just the month of September. Despite its prevalence, few cancers can be as effectively mitigated with early detection as prostate cancer, which can markedly improve not only a man’s likelihood of surviving the cancer, but his quality of life as well.
And 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 reaching the men who need it requires not just educating guys of a certain age. 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’s 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 a rate twice as high. 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 such as the RESPOND, COMPPARE and Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project studies. Different people respond differently to various treatments and treatment modalities, which only underscores the need to have a diverse sample in these studies.
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 need to know what their options are and know how critical that knowledge is when dealing with a deadly disease.
This year, we can make September the start of a revitalized focus, the kick-off of a campaign to ensure men are protected. We can change the conversation and make Virginia a national leader in combating prostate cancer through education and early detection. The governor has led the way; now the rest of us need to take up this challenge and follow through.