Black cancer survivors urge men to get prostate scores
Rev. Arthur T. Gerald, Jr., interim pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, isn’t the only preacher there on Sunday mornings. Sometimes, the congregants preach to him.
One such preacher was Charles Austin, a church member and health activist that has advocated prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention efforts for 12 years.
Ten years ago, Austin persuaded Gerald to get his prostate checked for cancer.
“Because of his insistence, I became insistent with my physician, who did not feel I was at risk. And because of Charlie, we were able to identify this disease before it became deadly,” said Gerald, also a dean at Salem State College.
Last Father’s Day, Austin, himself a prostate cancer survivor, strolled the Boston Common grounds as part of the Boston Prostate Cancer Walk, joined by his family and 5,000 others.
Austin was busy as usual, stepping to the podium and using his booming baritone to sound a new call for action.
“Every dad that is here today should know your score,” he said. “If you turned 45, know the score.”
He wasn’t talking about the score of the Red Sox game, though he did serve as a backup public address announcer at Fenway Park for two years.
No, he was talking about the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) score, measured by a blood test screening for the possibility of a tumor.
Prostate cancer is the most diagnosed disease in men after skin cancer, and kills a man in the U.S. every 16 minutes, according to the Web site for the Prostate Cancer Walk, a project of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
According to the American Cancer Society, men without any major medical problems should begin prostate cancer testing at age 50. Men at high risk — including black men — should begin at 45.
With the stakes so high, Austin pleads for every man over 45 to learn his PSA score.
“If he doesn’t know it, that is a score in the difference between life and death,” Austin said emphatically.
“I am telling my son that when he gets to be about 35 or 40, he needs to check [for prostate cancer] … It is important; it is life-saving, and the quality of one’s life can be maintained and enjoyed,” added Gerald.
Austin’s advice to women and significant others is to be persistent with the men in their lives, and nag if necessary, to ensure that they are diagnosed.
“Stay on their case, because besides being impotent, you’re going to be stupid and you’re going to be dead,” said Austin.
Now 64, Austin recalls his shock at learning he had the disease 12 years ago.
“I was diagnosed with advanced, metastatic, inoperable, incurable prostate cancer with metastasis to my lymph nodes,” said Austin, now retired from WBZ-TV, where he worked as a journalist for 32 years. “My PSA was then 650. A good PSA is zero to four.”
The news struck him deeply.
“I was mad because I worked in the TV industry … and was not aware of how dangerous prostate cancer can be, especially to African American men,” he explained. “I found out that African American men have the highest rates of prostate cancer death in men in the world.”
He went through “a double hitter treatment” — radiation, external beam radiation, and Lupron injections to attack the testosterone. He said that even though both treatments saved his life, he experienced strong side effects.
“I know what hot flashes are; I know what mood swings are,” he said. “Both treatments with their side effects helped put my prostate cancer into a point of remission that was a joy. It was really working towards my living.”
Austin is on the board for the Prostate Cancer Coalition. Five years ago, he became involved with the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), visiting African American men at churches and institutions such as the Nation of Islam in Boston to inform them about the importance of prostate health and the SELECT program.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, also a prostate cancer survivor and an advocate for early diagnosis, praised Austin’s dedication to the cause during his Father’s Day public address.
“Our role model for this in Massachusetts should be Charlie Austin … every day [he is] advocating [for] men to have the test done,” said Menino.
Rev. Gerald, for one, agrees.
“For me personally, Charlie, I look [at him] as a guardian angel,” he said.
Though he’s retired, former WBZ-TV journalist Charles Austin is still delivering an important news bulletin — the need for men over age 45 to get their prostate-specific antigen (PSA) score, a key prostate cancer predictor. (Margarita Persico photo)