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OP-ED: A Silent Killer No More

By Hamil R. Harris, NNPA Contributing Writer

Political provocateurs are determined to stir up controversy over Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s failure to tell President Biden about his treatment for prostate cancer. Yet, his desire to keep the matter private—and out of the public eye—is in line with what many men, particularly men of color, have done for decades. The reticence to share details of a medical condition is understandable, but prostate cancer is a silent killer in the Black community and the time has come to give it a voice.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose son Dexter recently passed from prostate cancer, I ask: How long? How long will Men of color suffer in silence and die alone? How long will too many brothers hide their plight?

When he finally commented publicly about his condition, Austin offered regrets about keeping silent and then made an important pledge. He said that by not initially disclosing his diagnosis, he “missed an opportunity to send a message on an important public health issue,” while noting the prevalence of prostate cancer, particularly among Black men. Encouraging all men to get screened, Austin promised, “You can count on me to set a better example on this issue today and for the rest of my life.”

Any cancer diagnosis is a private matter. But men like Dexter King and Austin can help so many others who are prone to prostate cancer. Keeping the surgery and treatment a secret would only have continued to add to the stigma surrounding prostate cancer. That would have been a disservice to the thousands of men of color diagnosed annually.

Indeed, data from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City shows that more than 13 percent of African American men between the ages 45 and 79 will develop prostate cancer in their lifetimes. And Black men have a 70 percent higher rate of developing prostate cancer than White men. The American Cancer Society also shockingly predicts that Black men are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than their White counterparts.

These figures are appalling when considering that prostate cancer is one of the most treatable forms of the disease with the five-year survival rate for men diagnosed with it being greater than 99 percent if the cancer is detected during the early stage.

While there are numerous reasons for why this disparity between Black and white men exists – decades of structural racism, environmental issues, certain comorbidities, different molecular pathways in the body of Black men – a great deal of the reason comes down to the fact that Black men are disproportionately not being screened for prostate cancer as early or as regularly as White men.

A recent study published in JAMA Oncology by a team at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center found that Black men get fewer PSA (prostate specific antigen) screenings; they are more likely to be diagnosed with later stage cancer; they are less likely to have health insurance; and they have less access to high-quality care and other disparities that can be linked to a lower overall socioeconomic status.

Given his platform as Secretary of Defense, I am happy that Austin recognized his duty to be open and honest about his battle with this disease. And in doing so, he now joins groups and individuals who are already working on spreading awareness for prostate screenings who can act as guideposts.

For example, Mount Sinai Medical Center recently unveiled the Robert F. Smith Mobile Prostate Cancer Screening Unit, which will visit New York City neighborhoods where men could be at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer.  The mobile home sized bus is named after the African American philanthropist and venture capitalist who donated almost $4 million to launch the program. Smith, who has led many philanthropic endeavors aimed at supporting the African-American community, obviously realizes that it takes a preemptive approach to combat the scourge of prostate cancer by going directly into the communities most affected by the disease. In announcing the prostate screening initiative, Smith tied it to larger inequities in our society that leave African Americans behind. “It’s unconscionable that in our great country and at this moment of technological breakthrough, Black Americans are still subject to staggeringly worse health outcomes,” he said. “We can fix this.”

Thankfully there are individuals like Smith and now Austin to use their platforms to spread awareness for this deadly – yet very treatable – form of cancer and ensure that more people don’t die needlessly.

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