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Men, Let’s Talk About Cancer

April 2024 Vol 10 No 2
Joe Bullock in watercolor

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was criticized recently for keeping his prostate cancer diagnosis a secret. I can understand the need for privacy because I was a preschool teacher when I was diagnosed with stage IIIb colorectal cancer. One of the hardest things I faced as a cancer patient was revealing the diagnosis to my loved ones. And then to a whole school full of children and parents. Those conversations were exhausting.

I can imagine the pressure Defense Secretary Austin must have felt as a public figure to share a very private ordeal. Unfortunately, the obligation he had as a public figure outweighed his desire for privacy, and many government officials called for transparency about his diagnosis.

Shining a Light on Risk and Disparities

Although he had to endure some criticism, his diagnosis did shine a harsh light on racial disparities. Prostate cancer accounts for roughly 37% of all newly diagnosed cancer cases in Black men.1 Recent studies show that 1 in 6 Black men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime.2 This is radically different compared with White men and represents a 70% higher incidence in Black men than in White men.1

Thankfully Secretary Austin is expected to have a full recovery. I hope he will use his platform to advocate for more men in the Black community to get cancer screenings.

Private VS Public?

Several years ago, actor Chadwick Boseman was criticized in much the same way as Secretary Austin for remaining silent about his stage III colon cancer diagnosis. His agent explained that Chadwick’s mother had taught him not to allow people to fuss over him. His passing shined a light on young adults’ colon cancer risk. It is expected by the year 2030 that 27,400 people under the age of 50 will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.3 It is also projected that Black men are 40% more likely to die from colorectal cancer.4

Chadwick Boseman’s passing shined a light on young adults’ colon cancer risk. It is expected by the year 2030 that 27,400 people under 50 will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

In my experience, and much like Mr. Boseman, men tend to keep quiet about difficult subjects. In fact, I was raised to avoid doctors and medical care in general for financial reasons. I was told to “walk it off” or “work through the pain.” Sometimes, it feels like society teaches us that real men don’t show pain or weakness, and we certainly don’t talk about it. Many men may struggle in a similar way when they face a cancer diagnosis or medical crisis of their own.

Sharing the Journey

To start the conversation and break patterns of silence, actors Ryan Reynolds, Rob McElhenny, and Will Smith all had colonoscopies on camera to raise awareness and promote colorectal cancer screening.

In 2020 major league baseball star Trey Mancini was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer and used his platform to share his journey. He is cancer free today and continues to use his voice to encourage others to get screened.

Weather forecaster Al Roker was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September 2020. One month later, he had his prostate removed. Since then, Roker continues to share his cancer journey to encourage other men, especially Black men, to get checked regularly.

My Mission

I recently said goodbye to my oncologist for what we hope will be the last time. He released me from his care because I continue to be cancer free 6 years post diagnosis. But as I have said before, cancer might be done with me, but I’m not done with cancer. Last year I accepted the position of Chief Operating Officer for Man Up to Cancer, a nonprofit organization. Our goal is to prevent men from isolating after a cancer diagnosis. I will continue to encourage all men to get screened for cancer and to raise their voices to support one another in the fight with cancer.

The decision to keep a diagnosis private or make it public is ultimately up to you, but I can tell you that the journey can be a lot easier when you share. Your story may inspire others to get screened. I hope you decide to share.

To learn more about Man Up to Cancer and its programs, visit


  1. American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Early detection for prostate cancer. 2024. Accessed March 17, 2024.
  2. Zero Prostate Cancer. Black men and prostate cancer. 2024. Accessed March 17, 2024.,be%20diagnosed%20with%20advanced%20disease
  3. Fight Colorectal Cancer. United in the fight against colorectal cancer. March 1, 2023. Accessed March 17, 2024.
  4. American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer rates higher in African Americans, rising in younger people. September 3, 2020. Accessed March 17, 2024.

The ESSAY column in Conquer is devoted to lifting the voices of people touched by cancer.
Read more essays or submit yours.

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