As Prostate Cancer Awareness Month Ends, Remember This Simple Message

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By James Williams

Let’s face it, men don’t advocate for their health nearly enough — and are suffering as a result. Without advocates, men’s health initiatives and health awareness programs are not given the priority they deserve. 

Prostate cancer will kill nearly 32,000 men this year nationwide, including 1,320 in Pennsylvania. It is the most common type of cancer diagnosed for men in the state and is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death among men. African American men are 61 percent more likely than Caucasian men to be diagnosed with prostate cancer and 2.2 times more likely to die from it. 

September was Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, but it receives little exposure as compared to Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Our society easily recognizes the pink ribbon that symbolizes breast cancer awareness, but few are aware that the blue ribbon symbolizes prostate cancer awareness.

This isn’t to say one disease is more serious than another. Nationally, about 37,000 women will die of breast cancer this year — a tragic and unacceptable figure. But despite similar numbers of annual deaths, twice the amount of money is spent on breast cancer research than on prostate cancer research. 

In the U.S., health policy is determined, largely, by advocacy — not necessarily need and science. For example, AIDS research has received twice the funding of breast and prostate research because activists for the former have been so successful in developing programs and raising awareness. 

To begin to bring prostate cancer awareness and research in line with other health advocacy campaign, Pennsylvania must establish men’s health initiatives and facilities similar to the many health initiatives that exist for women — and to break through that barriers, it begins with education. 

Men take better care of their automobiles than their health. It is not uncommon for men to schedule periodic auto maintenance service to change the oil or obtain a multi-point vehicle inspection. They understand preventive maintenance is cost effective and enhances the vehicle’s longevity. 

Unfortunately, the same logic is not used with their health. Thus, men don’t live as long as females, and their quality of life, especially during retirement years, is plagued with all kinds of health issues. 

As far as men’s maintenance goes, prostate cancer screening is a must. Targeted screening based on age, family history, race and genomics can change the outcomes for men diagnosed with the disease, and the prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, biomarker is a good tool for doing so. Its introduction of PSA in the late ’80s to early ‘90s caused a rise in the finding of prostate cancer in its earlier stages. 

But the problem today is not its ability to aid in the discovery of prostate cancer, but what follows afterwards. Men must understand they need to visit a physician when they are well, not only when they are sick. Establishing a baseline number is the benefit of PSA screening. Comparing and analyzing that number with successive screenings is key to good prostate health.

But encouraging men to see their physician when they are well is a hard sell. Our health care system is really a sick care system, driven by reimbursing health professionals for diagnosis and treatment. Health prevention is the answer, but there are few incentives (especially monetary) to reward the health professional for quality instead of quantity. 

We need to change the current sick care paradigm to a truly health care model. To do that for those suffering from prostate cancer or may one day be diagnosed with it (and that’s all men), the Pennsylvania Prostate Cancer Coalition (PPCC) is asking legislators to create an income tax check-off program and provide treatment for Pennsylvanians who are uninsured or underinsured. It also is asking legislators to fund a plan to increase the proportion of men over 40 who obtain an informed discussion from their physicians about prostate cancer.

PPCC also asks the General Assembly to help increase by 20 percent the number of African American men tested for prostate cancer and create annual supplemental funding to enhance PPCC’s Signature Outreach Programs, including annual conferences, promotions, social media expansion, health kits and partnerships.

September came and went, and many may not have realized there were blue ribbons reminding the world of a serious disease that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. It does not have to be this way.

Retired Col. James E Williams, Jr. is chairman of the Pennsylvania Prostate Cancer Coalition (PPCC).