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Cancer Effort Enlists Barbers

Prostate Awareness Program Focuses on African American Men

By Kari Lydersen
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page A03

CHICAGO -- Prostate cancer is Ricardo Arnold's "scariest fear," he says, something that worries him constantly. The North Side barber has seen several family members develop the disease, and as a 46-year-old African American man, he is in a high-risk group. So he gets a screening every year and urges his customers to do the same.

"You want to catch it early so you can treat it," he tells a customer at the Shear Norris barbershop, who is skeptical about the risk because he considers prostate cancer a punishment for infidelity meted out by a higher power.

Longtime barbers such as James Coleman, 75, have their clients' trust and can broach sensitive issues such as prostate cancer. (Warren Skalski For The Washington Post)

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Arnold is one of more than 800 barbers nationwide enlisted by the grass-roots group Prostate Net, an organization founded in 1996 by Virgil Simons, who had surgery for prostate cancer at age 48. After writing a book about using the Internet to find health information and establishing a Web site (www.prostate-online.org), Simons last year began to reach out to African American men in the place he says they feel most comfortable discussing personal issues.

"The barbers I grew up with were strong personalities who carried a lot of weight in the community," said Simons, a Chicago native. "If they said something, you believed them."

Launched with the assistance of MGM Studios in connection with last year's release of the movie "Barbershop 2," the Barbershop Initiative enlisted doctors at 57 medical centers across the country to train the barbers in advising their customers about the disease. Prostate Net is funded by private donations and grants from corporations and foundations.

Along with educating clients about the disease, the barbers hand out information about local medical centers that offer low-cost screenings.

African American men are the highest-risk group for prostate cancer, dying of the disease at approximately twice the rate of other American men. High-fat diets are probably one reason. Another is the fact that African American men are generally reluctant to visit doctors.

Prostate cancer often has no symptoms for seven to 10 years, and by that time, it can be hard to cure. But if diagnosed in its early stages, it is highly curable.

On a visit to Shear Norris, Joe Harrington, project director for the Department of Preventive Medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, described the need for both prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood tests and digital rectal exams.

"It takes three to five minutes. It's uncomfortable but not painful," he said of the exams.

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