Cancer. The word alone is enough to strike fear. For men, the words “prostate cancer” are even more frightening. Yes, you can die from prostate cancer. But the thought of surviving it and facing incontinence and erectile dysfunction can be even scarier than death. And that’s not to mention the anxieties associated with treatment options, cures that often seem worse than the disease, including strength sapping radiation or nerve-threatening surgery.
This is why Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett’s announcement last Tuesday that he’d been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer (which followed a similar announcement from actor Ryan O’Neal) was such big news. It’s also why Buffett made the effort to reassure his company’s shareholders that his condition was “not remotely life-threatening.” There is nothing like fear when it comes to shaking up the financial markets. And while it is natural to feel and acknowledge such fears, it’s critical for both the health of those markets and, more important, the fight to treat and survive the disease, to not be ruled by fear.
These are not mere hypothetical musings for me. I am a prostate cancer survivor. With April now designated as National Minority Health Month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I’m here to tell you that the ability of prostate cancer to kill you depends largely on whether you allow fear to keep you from acting to protect yourself.
The most important words to focus on in Buffett’s announcement are “early stage.” These words are the difference between prostate cancer being a survivable, though serious, condition or a life-threatening, quality-of-life destroying health crisis. And that’s why it’s important that we address and stand up to our fears about prostate cancer, especially us Black men. Our fear keeps too many of us from catching the disease in its early stages. Fear of doctors. Fear of digital rectal exams, where doctors literally feel for signs of an enlarged or misshapen prostate gland. Fear of prostate specific antigen (PSA) tests and what they might reveal. Fear of how the mere thought of erectile dysfunction might jinx our mojo in bed. Even fear of the lifestyle changes—including diet, exercise and medication—that preventing, fighting or recovering from prostate cancer might require.
If prostate cancer is a murderous home invasion, fear is what allows the disease to bypass security systems to break in and terrorize us. When it comes to my health, I decided 20 years ago that the time to deal with a home invasion is before it takes place, not once it’s inside. I was 32, when I decided to reject my lifelong fear and distrust of doctors and commit to finding a personal physician and getting annual physical exams. My turning point: an episode of a television news magazine show following the lives of three men who suffered disability, the collapse of a small business, bankruptcy and premature death by simply avoiding doctor visits as if they were the plague. All it took was one look at my two older daughters (ages 9 and 3 at the time) and my infant son, and the story of one of the subjects of the TV program who sentenced himself to death from a totally treatable disease, who would never see his children graduate from college, get married or give him grandchildren. Within two weeks, I found a physician, Dr. Bruce Yaffe, and scheduled my first annual physical since high school.