FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- After Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was discharged from Walter Reed Hospital early Monday after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, veterans in the Fayetteville area opened up about their own journeys with the disease. Prostate cancer is a major issue for the community, as it disproportionately affects veterans and Black men.
Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Allen told ABC11 that learning of Austin's prostate cancer diagnosis was almost surreal. Allen said Austin was by his bedside at Walter Reed when he had his own surgery for prostate cancer.
"He said, 'Joe, if you're a Black man, and you don't have some type of problem with your prostate,' he said, 'that means you didn't live long enough.'"
The Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says Black men are 70% more likely to develop prostate cancer than other men and twice as likely to die from it. Meanwhile, the VA says it's also the most common cancer diagnosis for veterans.
Prostate is a very intimate part of the body and sometimes, you're not going to talk about that to your friends because you don't want to feel less than a man.Claude Bright, veteran
Dr. Richmond Owusu, a urologist for Cape Fear Valley Health, says Black men are disproportionately diagnosed because they tend to have poorer access to healthcare and don't get tested for the cancer until later in life. That leaves them more vulnerable to advanced stages of prostate cancer.
"Unfortunately, some of the later stages of prostate cancer that we see are men who present to the emergency room for some kind of urinary trouble: blood in their urine. They can't urinate. They've been having back pain for a long time and then we get to see them and we check their PSA and it is over the roof. We scan them, and the cancer is spread everywhere," Owusu said. "Those are people who never have seen their primary care doctor or they saw their primary care doctor who isn't up to date in terms of checking PSAs on these men."
Fellow veteran Claude Bright of VFW Post 6018 said being diagnosed with prostate cancer was devastating.
"Standing in front of my family, you know, I wanted to be strong, to show them I'm strong. But once I got by myself, I broke down like a baby." Bright said.
He said he came to terms with his cancer diagnosis when he learned that it wasn't a death sentence because it was caught early. Since then, he's become an ambassador for a nonprofit called the Prostate Health Education Network. He also helps organize an annual motorcycle ride for the Sandhills community to spread awareness about prostate cancer and to bring survivors together.
"Prostate is a very intimate part of the body and sometimes, you're not going to talk about that to your friends because you don't want to feel less than a man," Bright said. "But when you talk to other gentlemen who have had prostate cancer and went through the treatment and they understand what you're going through, it's easier for them to talk to you because they can tell you things that you didn't even think of."
Early detection is key, Owusu said.
"If you are waiting for any kind of symptom of prostate cancer, then you're waiting too late. When once prostate cancer becomes symptomatic it is often late-stage metastatic disease that has spread," Owusu said. "There are some men that we find prostate cancer in that don't need to be treated right away, and we just have to keep a close eye on them. And then there are those that need to be treated because they have more aggressive cancer that needs to be treated. And so, just even being diagnosed with prostate cancer does not mean you necessarily need treatment, but it takes getting the care, having a urologist who can go through all the different steps and all the different explanations with you to get the necessary information that you need to make the informed health care decision that you need to make."
Allen and Bright urged others to be proactive and seek mental health support.
"The problem with us in the Black community is we don't talk about it," Allen said. "Men do not talk about prostate cancer. I chose to take that on everywhere to tell men everywhere, 'Hey look, are you getting checked, are you getting checked?'"
Bright added: "Sometimes you might need counseling. Take the counseling because instead of bottling it up and taking frustration out and letting it build up inside of you, talk it out."
For veterans who may be living with prostate cancer and are unsure of how to afford treatment, Bright encouraged them to speak to professionals at the VA. The PACT Act has expanded health benefits specifically for those with prostate cancer -- a form of support that could be the difference between life and death.