Contributed By: Aris Lazdins
Ayofemi “Femi” Kirby still recalls, in clear detail, the day that her father, Jonathan, told her that he had prostate cancer. The two were cooking dinner together, when Jonathan, cutting tomatoes, mentioned that tomatoes were good for prostate health. Caught off-guard by the comment, Femi asked her father where he had heard that.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Femi, I have prostate cancer,’” she recalls.
Only months earlier, Femi had been told by her mother, Barbara, that dad wasn’t doing too well. What was wrong wasn’t clear, but something was definitely not right.
Jonathan Kirby, 67, passed away in the fall of 2010 from complications of prostate cancer. It had been nearly two years since the day that Jonathan delivered the bad news to Femi at her kitchen counter. By that time, it was already too late.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. In 2010 alone, ACS estimated that more than 32,000 American men would die from this disease. For 2011, the prognosis is not looking much better.
Omitting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), U.S. federal funding for prostate cancer research has remained flat for years, and is in fact lower today than it was in 2007. This translates to limited momentum in understanding a disease that’s the second leading cause of death in men, after lung cancer.
Prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women. Yet, in terms of awareness and federal funding, prostate cancer trails far behind. For a disease that claims nearly as many lives as breast cancer each year, prostate cancer receives less than half of breast cancer’s federal funding for research. Not including ARRA funds, in 2009 breast cancer research received nearly $599 million in federal funding. Prostate cancer received less than $294 million.
Today, one of the biggest roadblocks to making prostate cancer’s “blue” the “new pink” can be traced back to men, and how they deal with and talk about their health issues. Simply put, they often don’t. Men are less likely to confront their health issues and, in general, prioritize health much differently than women. In the fight for prostate cancer funding and awareness, getting men to speak up for their health, and for increased government funding remains the no. 1 goal.
“For many men, health just isn’t a top concern,” said Theresa Morrow, co-founder of Women Against Prostate Cancer. “Men prioritize other things, like providing for their families or being seen as successful, whether that’s by having a good job or by being the handyman around the house. Being sick is considered a weakness, and it doesn’t fit into their equation, so men often keep quiet and put their health issues out of sight, out of mind.”
This silence stifles prostate cancer awareness, and it also keeps men from seeking out regular cancer screenings and treatment, which could prove life saving if the disease is caught in its early stages. As with all cancers, early detection and treatment are essential.
For Femi and her mother, they had a feeling that Jonathan was having health problems well before he had announced his diagnosis to the family. What they didn’t learn until after Jonathan’s death was the shocking truth of how long he had been living with the disease.
While sifting through a box of old documents and medical records from the Department of Veterans Affairs (Jonathan had served as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam era), Femi and her mother discovered that Jonathan had been diagnosed with prostate cancer more than 25 years earlier. The man that they knew, the loving husband and father, the man who loved to play music and sing, had been carrying this with him for nearly half of his life.
“We just didn’t know,” said Femi. “We didn’t know that he had been dealing with this. After it was too late, and he started to drift away, we wondered, could we have done something?”
Countless families and loved ones survived by men who have been claimed by prostate cancer ask this question. If I had known sooner, could I have done something?
While federal funding for prostate cancer research remains an uphill battle, there is progress being made to answer the families who have lost someone dear. Continued efforts by galvanized women advocates, like the members of Women Against Prostate Cancer, have helped create a paradigm shift in prostate cancer awareness over the past several years. Thanks to the passion of these women, awareness of prostate cancer is at a higher level than ever before, and continues to be pushed to the forefront in media, as well as through direct advocacy efforts reaching families across the country. Together, these women are helping create a future without prostate cancer, lending a female voice to speak up for men’s health.