For someone about to undergo a particularly undignified medical procedure, Todd Perry was remarkable cheerful.
“This is great,” said the father of eight, standing in line Sunday afternoon at Duke South Clinic for a free digital rectal exam. “I know that black men are twice as likely to get prostate cancer, and I have a lot of people depending on me, so I wanted to make sure that I’m taking care of myself.”
Perry, 53, was taking advantage of an annual outreach event, the Duke Cancer Institute’s Men’s Health Initiative. It’s aimed at screening minority men for several basic illnesses, such as prostate cancer, that affect some of them, specifically African-Americans, at significantly higher rates than white men.
It was the second day of the event – Saturday it was held at the Lincoln Center in Durham – and by the time it concluded, more than 310 men had received screening for key health problems including prostate cancer, hypertension and diabetes.
Duke has put on the event in various forms for more than two decades now. For most of that time, it focused on prostate cancer screening. But two years ago the organizers, realizing they also had a chance to offer screening for other diseases with similar higher incidences of illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes, expanded it to include more screenings.
“The idea was that since we’ve got the attention of men who don’t normally engage with the health care system, let’s make it one-stop shopping,” said Nadine Barrett, director of the Office of Health Equity at the cancer institute. Her office coordinates the event.
Prostate cancer incidence was nearly two times higher for black men than their white counterparts in North Carolina, and black men were 2.6 times more likely to die from the disease, according to 2005 figures from the State Center for Health Statistics. Those gaps are among the worst in the nation.
The difference in the incidence of diabetes is similar, and African-Americans are about 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure.
Reaching out to all
The event was open to men of all races, though, and Duke reached out though various channels, including outreach programs it runs with black churches. It was also publicized through media such as radio stations that reach minority audiences, billboards, and even an ad and a story in a Chinese language newspaper.
The crowd Sunday afternoon included black, white and Hispanic men, and more than a dozen Asian men, many of them actually carrying the newspaper with the ad. There were Mandarin and Spanish translators to help the staff and volunteers convey matters such as the complex issues surrounding prostate-cancer screening.
The screenings would be just the first step if a potential health problem were identified, Barnett said. When a health problem is identified, “navigators” work with the patients to make sure they overcome any barriers to further health care, such as access to a doctor, transportation, payment and even fear of treatment.
Merritt Short, 44, a food-safety consultant from Durham, is part of the leadership at The River Church in Durham, which persuaded about 30 members of its congregation to come for screenings Sunday.
The higher incidence of the illnesses weigh on the church’s pastor, Ronald Godbee, said Short.
“He is a really big proponent that our congregation remain healthy, and he had all of us men challenging each other to come,” he said.
‘You want it to last’
That’s how Short came to don a doctor’s jacket for a 30-second skit announcing the event that the church played on the last two Sundays between worship and the sermon. It’s also how Godbee came to announce it four times before services.
“Unfortunately, these diseases are very, very prevalent in the African-American community, but we’re trying to attack them head on and take care of ourselves,” Short said.
Duke’s multipronged approach to spreading the word among a population that normally doesn’t connect as much with the medical establishment was effective, said Perry, who first heard about the event on the radio, then was reminded about it by a member of his church.
Perry, who has worked at UPS in Chapel Hill for about 30 years, said he was particularly happy to hear that it was free, since he tries to get similar screenings once a year.
“It’s almost like your car,” he said. “You have to take it in for regular maintenance, and I feel like your body needs that too, if you want it to last.”