The Silent Killer

Jun 2, 2015

African-American men are nearly two times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than their white counterparts. And the gap in life-saving treatment is worse; African-American men are nearly three times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men.

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  According to the North Carolina Central Cancer Registry, for every 100,000 African-American men in the state, 216 will develop prostate cancer, and 48 will die.

Host Frank Stasio talks with WUNC reporter Jay Price about his News and Observer series on prostate cancer and African-American communities. Stasio also speaks with Steven Patierno, deputy director of the Duke Cancer Institute, and Nadine Barrett, director of health of equity at Duke Cancer Institute, about their research on prostate cancer and a local outreach innovative that targets underserved populations. 

Stasio also talks with Rev. Thomas Walker of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, about his personal battle with prostate cancer.

For those looking for more information on the Duke Cancer Institute, visit their website or call 888-275-3853.

Reverend Thomas Walker started noticing the symptoms. He often woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. He had a slow urine stream, sometimes in a stop-and-go pattern.

Reverend Walker was initially reluctant to visit a doctor, but he eventually did and learned his diagnosis: prostate cancer.

“In general, men just don’t like to go to the doctor, in particular when it’s dealing with their prostate,” Walker says. “There’s a lot of barber shop talk that’s not founded around it.”

Walker’s was diagnosed in 1996.  After overcoming the disease, Walker wrote a book on empowering men, particularly African-Americans, about prostate cancer. He works to educate others and encourage medical screenings.

“Men are very slow about going to the doctor for anything,” Walker says. “They want to know questions like, ‘If you have prostate cancer, what effect would it have upon me sexually? What’s the potential for death and suffering?’”

In North Carolina, the work of people like Walker is important because African-American men are dying from the disease at higher rates than their white peers.

“The usual things that drag down public health – diet, exercise issues come into play for sure,” says Price. “There are also access issues if you think about someone who doesn’t have health insurance or can’t afford health insurance, and in the case of some of our rural counties, doesn’t really have access to high quality health providers because they simply aren’t there.”

Some of those rural areas, like northern and eastern North Carolina, are among the most affected parts of the state, in addition to the Triangle.

Outreach efforts to those communities often center on two main gathering places for African-American men: barbershops and churches. Outreach leaders use those spaces to disseminate information about prostate cancer.

“They’ll do things like train barbers as lay health advisers,” Price says. “They’ll give them information and teach them how to spread it in a way that’s useful, practical. Ministers are often viewed as leaders in the black community. They’re trusted, and they can often persuade men that it’s a good idea to come in and get regular health care.”

Nadine Barrett, director of health equity at Duke Cancer Institute, works with outreach efforts to screen men. Barrett holds events with churches and barbershops in an effort to go to the community as opposed to putting the onus on the men.

But she doesn’t just focus on men.

“We also reach out to beauty salons,” Barrett said. “Men will engage with the health care system with the prompting of the women in their lives.”

Educating African-American men about prostate cancer is one step, but that’s not enough for Barrett.

“It’s really important that not only do we give the information, but we also provide those resources that people can get the screenings when they need to get it,” Barrett says.