Women recruited to join fight against prostate cancer

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers player Robin Cole knows firsthand that early detection of prostate cancer saves men's lives. It saved his. That's why he's working to raise awareness among men in an unusual way -- by recruiting women to battle the disease.

Mr. Cole, 57, of Nottingham, Washington County, underwent laparoscopic surgery in 2004 for prostate cancer, which claimed the life of his 49-year-old father, Obediah Cole, in 1979. Since then, Mr. Cole and five of his brothers have been diagnosed with the cancer but early enough to prevent complications. One brother, William, did die from other cancers.

Mr. Cole helped to found the Obediah Cole Foundation for Prostate Cancer that's joining with the Allegheny County Health Department to form a local chapter of Women Against Prostate Cancer. The goal is to recruit women to raise awareness and help convince men to get early screening for the cancer.

A meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Gilda's Club, 2816 Smallman St. in the Strip District, to discuss formation of an organizational chapter. Chapters already exist in the Greater Los Angeles area, Connecticut, Texas and western New York.

Parking is available and light refreshments will be offered, but space is limited. Anyone wishing to attend should reserve a seat by the end of the work day by contacting health department public health nurse Lorraine Starsky at 412-247-7816 or Jerry Bortman of the foundation at 724-942-4963.

The numbers tell the story. Prostate cancer kills 20,000 American men each year, making it second only to lung cancer in the region in death totals. More men get prostate cancer than women get breast cancer. One in six men will get prostate cancer in his lifetime. Many prostate cancer deaths are prevented with early screening, Mr. Bortman said.

But one key reason for the high death toll involves the male tendency to wait for symptoms to appear, even severe ones, before seeking treatment. "It seems like with a majority of men, it's a masculine thing," Mr. Bortman said. "Why go to the doctor if I'm not sick enough to need a doctor?"

Few men get preventive checkups or do preventive activities such as exercise and eat a healthy diet.

"Here's the thing: We're not bashing men," Ms. Starsky said. "A lot of men are doctor-phobic. Sorry, but that's the reality. We think if women become informed and educated, they can become the best advocates for the issue with all the tremendous success women have brought to bear on breast cancer."

In a supportive environment, women are interested in such issues as treatments and their impacts on intimacy, she said.

"We want to raise awareness with the united voices of men and women affected by this and add the woman's touch of reaching out and offering support," she said. "Women often play the role of being the guardian of family health. I like the idea, as a public-health nurse. I'm aware of the fact that if you get women involved, you've unleashed a force."

Another concern for the health department and foundation is the disproportionately high rate of prostate cancer among African American men, who have twice the incidence rate and death rate as the rest of the nation's male population. The foundation and health department also plan to focus attention on communities where men lack health-care services and health insurance, including the Hill District, Duquesne and Homewood, among others.

The foundation and health department recommend that men 40 and over be tested annually for prostate cancer, while UPMC recommends that men 50 and older be screened each year, Mr. Bortman said. The most common test is the "prostate specific antigen" test or PSA, which can give physicians an indication of cancer risk, even though the test often is inaccurate.

"Acting right away and taking preventative caution made the difference for me," Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Bortman said his prostate cancer was diagnosed during a routine visit to his doctor.

"I'm a 16-year survivor of prostate cancer," he said. "I was fortunate that I was detected early."

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David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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