Fighting the stigma: How candid conversations may help men facing cancer

May 19, 2021
Bin McLaurin, advocate and prostate cancer survivor

L

ooking back, cancer was not talked about openly in the African American community I grew up in. We tended to be very guarded about sharing any health matters. There was shame in discussing cancer, especially for men, and there were few, if any, conversations happening around illness and prevention. 

Bin McLaurin, advocate and prostate cancer survivor

I also found little guidance from the medical community, specific to my needs. Before my cancer diagnosis, I had this lingering sense that something was not right with my health. Yet, when I voiced my concerns to my doctors, they only treated my symptoms and not the underlying causes. I felt dismissed with little-to-no direction or follow-up steps. Worse, I didn’t know the best way to advocate for myself or how to ask for the right help.

Things changed when I was fortunate to find a primary care physician who explained some of the specific health issues that African American men face and why we should be screened for certain cancers. It struck a chord with me to finally hear that some diseases are more prevalent in my community than others – and yet few health professionals or others that I was aware of were doing anything about this. 

This enlightenment impacted me in two big ways. First, as part of my job at a Los Angeles hospital, I started partnering with local barbershops to encourage men in my community to proactively get health screenings. 

Second, I was motivated to schedule my own recommended cancer screenings. And sure enough, my prostate cancer screening revealed that I had an aggressive form of the cancer, a type that Black men are more likely to get and more likely to die from compared to others.  I learned it had already progressed to a high Gleason score, but I was fortunate to have caught it before it metastasized. I didn’t realize that taking my health into my own hands would mark the start of my cancer journey and my foray into advocacy.

Bin McLaurin, advocate and prostate cancer survivor

As my care team focused on immediate results, I often wondered what my future would look like once treatment ended. Exhausted and in pain, I had no idea what to expect long term. As I’ve come to learn, this feeling is all too common among cancer survivors.

Fortunately, an oncology social worker guided me toward survivorship support programs and explained how important they are for coping, even after treatment ends. When I started attending the art therapy program she suggested, I noticed I was the only man and the only African American in attendance. This made me want to encourage more patients like me to take part in these valuable support programs to help them navigate their next chapters.

Today, I am the coordinator of cancer survivorship programs at the Los Angeles hospital where I received my cancer diagnosis. I also launched a men's cancer breakfast club and a men's health and cancer support foundation called Men Actively Creating Healthy Outcomes (MACHO). I feel fortunate to be able to advocate on behalf of others and help them find resiliency in the face of cancer.

I’ve also had time to reflect on what I wish could have been done differently throughout my cancer journey. I believe there’s an urgent need to educate and empower all communities regarding healthcare and cancer survivorship—especially communities of color and men in the African American community, where the stigma around cancer persists. I think healthcare professionals can also do a better job of understanding where we are coming from and guiding us in the right direction. We ultimately need to meet each other halfway. 

Despite the challenges I’ve faced, I’m grateful that my experience has led me to support others living with cancer, that I get to remind them that it’s OK to be vulnerable and ask for help. Being open and empowered about your health can ultimately help you continue to navigate physical, mental and emotional challenges after cancer.

Reference

[1] Who is at risk for prostate cancer? (2021, February 24). From https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/prostate/basic_info/risk_factors.htm.