By Thomas A. Farrington | February 23, 2006

MEDICAL RESEARCHERS at Yale School of Medicine recently suggested that prostate cancer screening is not as reliable a measure as it should be. One of the study's coauthors even encouraged doctors to let patients decide whether to get screened for the disease.

These suggestions could do more damage than good to men at high risk for the disease. With our considerably higher incidence of, and death rates from, prostate cancer, black men in this country simply cannot afford to forgo early detection, and screening is the only method used for early detection.

I have personally faced the pains and confusion surrounding prostate cancer screening. Before I was diagnosed, I was not aware or informed by my doctors of my high risk (my father and both grandfathers died from this disease), or of any screening guidelines associated with this high risk. Because of my condition when diagnosed, I was forced to seek out specialized treatment not available to most men.

Unfortunately, the Yale School of Medicine study was based on results from a pool of only 1,000 men. Most egregious, it was silent on blacks and other men at high risk. If black men take the study's advice and put off screening, they're increasing their chances of being diagnosed with later-stage and incurable prostate cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, African-American men are diagnosed with prostate cancer at a rate 60 percent higher than men of all other ethnic and racial groups in this country. More alarming, we die at a rate of 2.5 to 1 from this disease compared with other men.

Last September, Democratic Senator John F. Kerry, a prostate cancer survivor, and Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks of New York joined with my organization, Prostate Health Education Network, to convene an unprecedented event on Capitol Hill: the first African American Prostate Cancer Disparity Summit. Leading cancer experts, survivors, advocates, clergy members, and political leaders gathered together and concluded that early detection is the key to eliminating the prostate cancer disparity. Moreover, the American Cancer Society recommends that screening be offered annually, beginning at age 50, to men who have at least a 10-year life expectancy -- with African-American men to begin testing at age 45.

Prostate cancer screenings through the PSA test and the digital rectal exam are the only means used today for early detection. Medical experts agree that prostate cancer can be cured with early detection and proper treatment. Because men do not have advanced imaging tools, we must become better educated about screening and our personal treatment options when dealing with prostate healthcare. The debate about whether prostate cancer screenings save lives misses the mark if it ignores the unique early-detection needs of black men. As we have seen all too often in the black community, silence and passivity surrounding this disease kills.

I have spoken with hundreds of men diagnosed with prostate cancer. I know men diagnosed with later-stage cancer who have a diminished quality of life and fight each day for survival. I see men confused about their condition and their best treatment option. And I know men who are seemingly cured of this disease because of early detection. These are real-life stories that cannot be ignored by any study.

It is true that we don't have a perfect system of screening techniques to detect prostate cancer. But we cannot allow the desire for perfection to be the enemy for those of us who are most vulnerable. Through education, awareness, and research, we must all work to make our early-detection techniques better and more efficient until there are superior procedures in place.

Thomas A. Farrington is founder and president of the Prostate Health Education Network Inc.

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