By Alexis Taylor, Special to the AFRO

Long before he fought his own Goliath-sized battle, Pastor Marshall Prentice knew the effects of prostate cancer on the Black men in his community.

The East Baltimore pastor had been running annual screenings and increasing awareness out of Zion Baptist Church for a full four years before he got a call that made everything personal.

Marshall Prentice, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, encourages congregants to get screened for prostate cancer. (Courtesy photo)

“The doctor told me over the phone I had prostate cancer,” recalls the 71-year-old doctor of divinity to the AFRO. “It was insensitive, but men at Zion had been through this and colon cancer. Just as I was able to help them, they helped as part of my journey. God showed me that He had gotten them through. Who am I to be exempt and not go through anything like this?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer starts in the prostate, it is called ‘prostate cancer.’” The National Cancer Institute (NCI) warns that over 164,000 men will discover they have prostate cancer in 2018. According to the CDC, “of 100 American men, about 13 will get prostate cancer during their lifetime, and about 2 to 3 men will die.” A family history of prostate cancer is a major factor in susceptibility, along with diet and lifestyle.

While fatality rates are low, health officials agree that Black men are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than White men because they simply won’t complete a check for the disease. Though symptoms are rare, the CDC does list “difficulty starting urination, weak or interrupted flow of urine, and frequent urination, especially at night” as indicators of the disease. Pain during urination or blood in urine or semen are also possible signs of the prostate cancer.

Prentice said at the time of his screening he showed no symptoms, but his biopsy revealed a high level of the prostate specific- antigen (PSA) in his blood, a protein that can alert doctors if it is elevated above four nanograms per milliliter of blood or increases significantly in a short period of time. He opted out of surgery because six to eight weeks of radiation was an option.

Six years later, he can be found imploring congregants to press through struggles with the full authority of someone who has survived tough times. His road to remission was accessible, in part to his early detection and how the disease moves through the body.

“This type of disease is like a slow moving turtle,” said Dr. Sanford J. Siegel, chief executive officer of Chesapeake Urology, a group of urologists across the Maryland and Delaware area. “Men usually don’t have physical symptoms until the cancer has spread to the bones.”

Siegel took over Prentice’s care after his initial diagnosis and said that while the disease traditionally does not rapidly ravage the body, Black men are experiencing higher fatality rates because they “generally do not go to their physicians as early or as often.” As a result, doctors are not contacted until the disease has progressed significantly or already spread to other parts of the body.

More than just an expert on prostate cancer, Siegel himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December of 2017, and said it has humbled him and significantly increased his compassion level for the men in his care. Siegel has been studying prostate cancer for three decades and said he was almost convinced to stay quiet about his diagnosis. “It was ironic. Here I was raising money and advocating for free screenings and I then I came down with prostate cancer. I couldn’t talk to men for thirty years about prostate cancer and then hide behind it. People see me now and know that if I can get it- they better check themselves,” he said.

Siegel told the AFRO he partnered with Baltimore’s churches to gain better access to men through the women that love them. In the past 11 years he has spoken to over 30,000 Black church members spreading an important message: “If you catch them early enough, African American men are equally curable. Finding these men earlier in their prostate cancer progression will cure them.”

Researchers at The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) have joined NCI and Prostate Cancer Foundation to explore the diagnosis and fatality gap between Black men and other races. Currently the institutes are looking for 10,000 willing Black men for their RESPOND study, which will focus on why African American males are so susceptible to the prostate cancer. Researchers will “examine possible associations between aggressive disease and exposures to neighborhood/environmental stressors such as discrimination, early-life adversity, and segregation.”

Current treatment options range from simple observation in low-grade cases to surgery where a robotic removes the prostate entirely. Siegel said there is also image guided radiation and a therapy that includes the implantation of radiation pellets  directly into the prostate. If the disease moves outside of the prostate, patients can also be treated with chemotherapy drugs or hormones.

In the last decade Siegel’s specific targeting of Black churches has resulted in over 8,000 prostate cancer screens and countless lives saved. One of those survival stories belongs to Curtis Pope Sr., chairman of the deacon ministry at Zion Baptist Church.

In January of 2013, Pope had a doctor’s appointment where he registered a “two” on the PSA screen for prostate cancer. Eight months later he reluctantly tested again to support the church’s annual screening for prostate cancer. The amount of PSA protein in his body had doubled.

“The program saved my life,” Pope told the AFRO. “The early detection means a lot.”

Zion Baptist Church not only offers free screenings for prostate cancer, they have a standing agreement with Chesapeake Urology on treatment. Lynden Nicholson, a deacon who helps run the free screenings, said that the partnership has flourished because “without hesitation Chesapeake Urology said ‘If anyone is diagnosed without insurance, we will see them through care and the patient will pay nothing.”

“That still stands- ten years later.”

This year’s screening is slated for August 11 from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm at Zion Baptist Church, located at 1700 North Caroline Street. A blood test will be given and results are mailed directly to the participant within two weeks.