I’m a prostate cancer survivor and a ‘conqueror’ because unawareness kills

Ralph Stowe, second from left, flanked by brothers Wendell, left the late James (Jimmy), third from left, and Philip were all diagnosed with prostate cancer. Following James’ death in 2009, Ralph has been spreading prostate cancer awareness through jazz.

By Ralph Stowe

People often refer to me as a cancer survivor. However, I would rather be referred to as a cancer conqueror, especially after becoming an advocate since 2011 for prostate cancer awareness.

This is an assignment I have accepted soon after the passing of my brother from prostate cancer.

My brother James “Jimmy” Stowe, a renowned jazz trombonist who performed, toured and recorded with many musicians, such as Tom Browne, Mtume, Art Blakey, Onaje Allen Gumbs, Barry Harris, Jimmy Owens, Warren Smith, Hubert Eaves II, Weldon Irvine, and many others, to his surprise, was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer.

During his diagnosis, James’ doctor prompted my brothers — Phillip, Wendell, and me — to each undergo exams, blood tests, and finally, biopsies of the gland. Although feeling confident that there would be no signs of cancer, we were surprised to discover that all three of us had tumors in our prostate.

Since the cancer was contained in our prostates, our physicians recommended that we remove the tumorous glands.

My brothers and I underwent successful prostatectomies that resulted from the benefits of an early cancer screening. However, our brother, James, was not as fortunate. With little or no help from the experimental chemotherapy prescribed, he eventually succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 61 in 2009.

While his passing supports the importance of early health screenings, in retrospect, our dear brother Jimmy saved our lives. Jimmy died primarily because he had no clear understanding of the symptoms, treatments, and experiences of a prostate cancer diagnosis. Unawareness kills.

My life and the lives of my brothers are testaments that early health screenings and treatments are vital to saving lives.

We celebrated Jimmy by turning mourning into the joy of awareness. We held a memorial service for my brother Jimmy at Thomasina’s, a renowned Queens, New York restaurant. Over 300 musicians gathered to celebrate Jimmy’s life with live music.

The jam session continued throughout the night and my urologist, Dr. Isaac Kim, deeply compelled by the situation, asked to say something. He had realized that the folks at the restaurant did not know how my brother died because of Jimmy’s requests for privacy about his secret diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Kim’s mindful exigency to talk about prostate cancer risk factors was the moment awareness took center stage.

After talking to about 80 men about prostate cancer, Dr. Kim took another mindful pivot. He leaned over to me at our table and said, “This (increasing awareness of prostate cancer) has to be championed. I will mentor you because this disease is high in the Black community.” Hence, Jazz For Prostate Cancer Awareness® was born, and I became a Prostate Cancer Awareness advocate and a conqueror.

After 10 years, the event continues to be the Jazz4PCA model — a restaurant-style location where musicians play and prostate cancer health awareness presentations provide information about screenings and treatments. Now, what piqued my interest was not only the fact that my brothers and I had prostate cancer but more to the point: why were we unaware?

Unawareness, I learned, was systemic, which meant that many of the socio-historical issues extant in the healthcare profession significantly contributed to the high mortality rate of prostate cancer among Black men.

From diagnosis to prognosis, treatment and screenings for prostate cancer were mostly based on white males, overlooking the causes of Black men’s high prostate cancer fatality rate. The effects of ignorance and unawareness, among both Black male patients and doctors, ushered a highly disproportionate number of Black men dying from prostate cancer. Awareness, on the part of patients, especially Black men and healthcare professionals, directly confronts institutional challenges.

First, Black men, or people of color, must acquire the language and knowledge to ask for a prostate exam, know the different types of exams and understand the various treatment protocols. Second, when a Black man has a health issue, he is now able to ask the health care professional to take a multifaceted approach to his care, particularly involving his prostate.

The Jazz4PCA team is an all-volunteer crew that shares my passion for getting more men informed, screened and treated for prostate cancer. Come Monday, Feb. 28, Jazz4PCA and the New Jersey Devils will team up in Newark to host a Black History Month Celebration with a focus on educating attendees about prostate cancer.

Ralph Stowe is the founder of Jazz For Prostate Cancer Awareness,® a pianist and an advocate.