Two years ago, Mark*, a police officer from Indianapolis, learned being African-American put him at high risk for prostate cancer. The person who told him was not his grandfather, who passed away from prostate cancer, or his doctor. It was the barber who cut Mark's hair twice a month!
He also talked to Mark about heart disease before finishing his trim. Mark's barber was the first from six Indiana cities to join a health outreach program in 2011 called the Indiana Black Barbershop Health Initiative, offering health education and services to more than 600 men in their local barbershops. Soon after, Mark visited his doctor and was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Not all prostate cancers need to be treated, but Mark's cancer was a fast-growing type. He and his doctor decided on surgery and radiation, and now Mark is cancer-free. "I'm a policeman, and my life has been in all kinds of danger before," said Mark. "But I never thought my barber would be one of the men who saved my life."
Not everyone thinks of a barbershop as the first place to hold a health education event. But "it's actually a great way to reach out to the community," explained Teasa Thompson, manager and prostate cancer health education specialist from Purdue University's Affecting Cancer Together™ (ACT) program, which helps train barbers for the event. ACT works to prevent cancer and other diseases throughout Indiana by working with community leaders, including those from religious and sports groups. "We can rely on these lay health leaders that we train to continue to engage their friends and family," explained Ms. Thompson. "We have found word spreads quickly when trusted community members talk to their peers."
ACT targets African-American men for prostate cancer education because they are at high risk for the disease. In African-American communities, "barbers are key leaders," according to Ms. Thompson. "Most in the Indianapolis area hold leadership roles outside our programs." Many men visit their barbers on a regular basis, and spend hours talking to them each month. "So these barbers know what's going on in the community," explained Ms. Thompson. "And they've gained a lot of trust. Often they are known for giving out relationship and financial advice already, so health education is a natural step."
Men may also feel more comfortable starting the talk about prostate cancer in a place they know, barbershop or not, if they are with friends. "Often they are more likely to go talk to a doctor about prostate cancer if a peer encourages them first," explained Ms. Thompson. "The key is to raise awareness about how important prostate education is, and give people information to get the conversation going," she said. Mark agrees. "It's important to get men to start talking to other men about prostate cancer, and make it a normal thing to discuss," he said. One in six men will get prostate cancer, and the rate is one in five for African-American men. "I couldn't believe what I heard!" Mark exclaimed. "I thought, 'why haven't I heard about this before?' I didn't even know my grandfather had it, or a family history put me at higher risk until after I was diagnosed. I didn't know because no one was talking about it," he said.
Today, the Indiana Black Barbershop Health Initiative has garnered a strong movement for prostate cancer awareness across Indiana. This year, the Initiative expanded to 12 Indiana cities—twice as many as in the first year—for its annual event. Over 100 barbershops offered men prostate health information provided by the Urology Care Foundation, as well as free blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol screenings. More than 1,000 men participated in the event. But James E. Garrett, Jr., executive director of the Indiana Commission for the Social Status of Black Males, says it's not just about the number of people who attend. "It's more about changing attitudes, and helping people know that there are resources available to better manage their health," he said. That kind of change builds awareness and spreads to a man's family and his community.
Today, Mark is a part of the change. "I eat right, exercise and take care of myself to keep healthy," he said. "It makes a world of difference, and my friends and family can see that. I try to set a good example for my son and my nephew. I tell them to make sure they see a doctor and stay on top of their health," Mark said. "And, of course, I share my story with the guys at the barbershop, too."
For more information about prostate cancer, visit KnowYourStats.org.