Prostate cancer kills African-American men at nearly twice the rate of white American males. And while factors such as diet and heredity offer a partial explanation, another significant reason is the fact that many African American men are often reluctant to seek out primary health care.
Now, a new community-based solution is bringing prostate health awareness to thousands of men who otherwise might have been overlooked. As VOA's George Dwyer explains, it is all happening through a familiar community institution.
One barbershop customer says about his prostate test, "I got my PSA all the way down from an 11 to a 2, and that was shocking [good news]. I went, 'huh?' "
Prostate health awareness is a regular topic of conversation at the Hair Affair barbershop in South Chicago. Owner Eddie Davis says many of his customers are usually hesitant to speak about such a private matter, even with their doctors.
"But by doing it in here, in the barbershop, it's an open, comfortable zone for the males. So it's easier to tell. We talk about everything in here."
Customers here receive prostate health literature, as well as gentle reminders from Eddie "I must ask: have you had your check-up lately, your prostate or your colon test, whichever, we're really talking about prostate?"
One customer likes the idea. "You'd be surprised at the number of men who come into the barber shop and can receive this information. If pamphlets and information are passed out, the word will get around."
The idea of using barbershops to promote prostate awareness can be traced in part to Virgil Simons, who was diagnosed with the disease 10 years ago. "I discovered the medical system was such that navigating by yourself without instruction, without guidance could be filled with a lot of traps as to the quality of treatment and the quality of life after treatment."
So Virgil set up a Website called ProstateNet, then began promoting the barbershop program. Today 30 medical centers, working with 400 barbershops, are getting the word out to more than 10,000 men who might not otherwise have sought it out for themselves.
Virgil says this can also lead to better overall health. "And the important thing about this is that not only are we talking about prostate cancer, but when we get the guys into the system, and they're comfortable with being in the system, we can talk about those other diseases of negative impact. We can talk about diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, hypertension, melanoma, all of these things that have negative impact on the black community disproportionately."
Parts of Virgil’s costs are underwritten by the producers of the popular film series "Barbershop," which showcases the social significance of barbershops in African-American communities.
Political Scientist Melissa Harris Lacewell says the barbershop has always been an important place for information exchange among African-Americans, and has written about how friendships formed here have often resulted in community action. "Because they are friends for that short period of time, it creates a kind of comfort that makes it more possible for people to talk about what are often very sensitive issues about their personal health."
Clarence Sanders, now 71, is a prostate cancer survivor happy to share his message. "For all the men who hear this, for God's sake, and your sake, go get that test. The earlier you catch it, the better your chances are. That old thing about, 'You're going to be impotent,' don't believe it. Because I still have a smile on my face."
Talk about a happy ending.