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Barbershop Talks Cut Black Men's Prostate Cancer Risk

THURSDAY, Sept. 6 -- For thousands of black American men, getting a haircut now means cutting their risk for prostate cancer, too.

That's because a new program -- inspired by a motion picture -- has already enlisted 4,000 barbers nationwide to provide prostate cancer education and screening to minority men.

The 2004 movie Barbershop highlighted a natural neighborhood gathering place for black men. Its implications were picked up immediately by Virgil Simons, a black textile industry executive turned cancer crusader.

"Twelve years ago I was operated on for prostate cancer," Simons said. "The whole process energized me."

He founded what has become The Prostate Net, with its own Web site (www.theprostatenet.com) and toll-free telephone line (888-477-6763). According to Simons, for the past 11 years Prostate Net "has been involved in educating people about the disease and teaching them how to empower themselves."

American black males remain the target population for the effort. Studies have shown that they have a 60 percent higher risk of prostate cancer compared to whites, in large part because they often lack access to routine health care. Black Americans are almost 2.5 times more likely to die of the disease than whites, studies show.

Data on the success of The Prostate Net was to be presented this week at the Innovative Minds in Prostate Cancer Today 2007 meeting in Atlanta.

Simons said Barbershop struck a chord with him because "I knew there had to be another form of outreach, particularly for those at high risk of that disease, minority men. So I set up a program where medical centers around the country educated barbers, and they provided information on screening and free care."

The program started with 300 barbers and screening for 20,000 men. Last year, more than 100 medical centers across the United States participated. A number of barbershops in the program now have multimedia workstations that provide video clips, text-based material, PodCasts and Web content.

A survey has been designed to assess how these barbershops influence knowledge and behavior about prostate cancer, Simons said.

"But from anecdotal reports we know we are making a difference," he said. "More and more barbers are asking about it on their own, and also more academic centers are using barbershops to provide information."

Using the local stylist as a vehicle to spread health messages to minority clients isn't unique to Prostate Net. In fact, U.S. researchers reporting in February at an international stroke conference found that urban beauty shops were ideal places to help black women learn about stroke's warning signs, as well as how to prevent the lethal attacks.

But another study, also presented at this week's meeting in Atlanta, suggests that the neighborhood pharmacist may not always be a reliable source of prostate cancer information.

In the study, researchers led by Helene Vilme, of Florida A & M University, Tallahassee, asked 89 Florida pharmacists whether they were willing and able to counsel customers on preventing prostate cancer and watching for the warning signs.

Most said they would gladly join in the education effort, but their "score on the general prostate cancer knowledge scale for patients was lower that expected for health-care professionals," the researchers note. They advocate research into better educating pharmacists on prostate cancer.

The Atlanta prostate cancer meeting was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, which might seem an unlikely sponsor of cancer research. In fact, the DOD's Prostate Cancer Research Program is the second leading source of funding for prostate cancer research, just behind the U.S. National Cancer Institute, said Col. Janet Harris, director of the program. The money comes from funds earmarked for specific purposes by Congressional budget makers.

One effort funded by the program involves 11 academic institutions in a study to determine the exact reasons why prostate cancer incidence and mortality is higher among black Americans, Harris said. A preliminary report on that study is scheduled for this meeting.

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Posted: September 2007


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