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Straight Talk on a Sensitive Topic From a Man Who Knows

CITYSCAPES / JOHN L. MITCHELL

October 16, 1999|JOHN L. MITCHELL

On a recent visit to Verbum Dei High School in Watts, Assemblyman Roderick Wright delivered an adult-rated message that, he stressed, "you're never too young to hear."

He told the 160 students at the all-male Catholic high school about his personal bout with prostate cancer.

"When you're 15 or 16, you believe that you are going to live forever, that you'll never get something like prostate cancer," Wright said. "Most people who get cancer think it's something that will never happen to them. Most of you will do the same thing. I had cancer, I had surgery and I don't have it anymore."

Wright, 47, said the point of his talk was to motivate the young men to study hard, lead honest lives, and represent their families and their communities well. But he also stressed the need to survive.

"Because if you are not alive, none of it matters," he said.

With straight talk and street humor, Wright struggled to hold the attention of his youthful audience, which was laughing one moment and squirming from embarrassment the next.

On an issue that has long been dominated by aging white grandfather figures such as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, here was a younger, hipper presentation.

And to the largely Latino and black student body at the high school, here was the empathetic figure of an

African American man who grew up in South Los Angeles.

It's estimated that prostate cancer will kill 37,000 men in the United States this year, hitting particularly hard among African Americans, who die of the disease at a rate twice that of whites.

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Wright's own brush with mortality came last year after blood tests detected, and a biopsy later confirmed, the presence of cancer in his prostate. He had none of the symptoms normally associated with the disease--

no urgency or difficulty urinating, no pain in his lower back, hips or thighs.

As battles were raging over the state budget and welfare reform, Wright underwent a three-hour surgery to remove the diseased gland at UCLA on June 8, 1998.

Then there was the pain of waiting to finally learn that his cancer had not spread and that he would fully recover.

"You go through a period of denial," Wright recalled. "You say, 'This ain't happening to me.' 'It's really somebody else.' 'They might be wrong.' "

A liberal Democrat elected to the Assembly in 1996 to represent South-Central Los Angeles after serving as a field deputy for Rep. Maxine Waters, Wright said he relied on friends, family and his church for emotional support. Then, he said, he decided to fight back, using his talent as a communicator to help dispel myths about the disease.

"What I found is that so many men suffer needlessly in private because they want to keep the world out of their business," he said. "I want to take prostate cancer out of the realm of the doctor's office. It is a conversation that I try to have wherever I go. Men need to discuss prostate cancer like women discuss breast cancer."

Wright has been taking the discussion on the road to neighborhood churches, political gatherings, even his barbershop.

On Wednesday he will celebrate a year of being cancer-free at a reception at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, where Los Angeles Postmaster Kerry L. Wolny will be on hand to showcase this year's prostate cancer awareness stamp.

The event will be hosted by the U.S. Postal Service, UCLA's urology department, the American Cancer Society, Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, Black Women Physicians and the Real Men Cook Foundation.

With prostate cancer, as with other forms of malignancy, the point at which the disease is detected can mean the difference between life and death.

The prostate, a walnut-size gland just below the bladder, is a collection of smaller glands that add nutrients and fluid to sperm. Prostate cancer is a malignant growth of those glands that can spread and cause serious injury and death.

Although the disease can occur in men of all ages, it most often strikes those over the age of 65. Most experts, however, recommend regular testing beginning as early as 40 for those in high-risk groups. Screening can include annual prostate-specific antigen tests, which measure the amount of enzymes in the blood produced by the prostate, and digital rectal exams.

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Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among African American men, according to the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Eila Skinner, a urological oncologist and USC professor, said no one is sure why the rates among these men are so high.

"My suspicion is that it is a little bit of everything," she said, including a diet high in fat, a lack of medical attention, and genetics.

In speaking to audiences of men about the disease, Wright says that sometimes you have to be blunt.

"Most men are not going to just come up to you and talk," he said. Instead, they call him at home and talk about troubles urinating. Wright urges them to get to a doctor fast.

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