Jerry Womack: From His Own Experience

 

Even when you know that cancer has affected your family before, it’s still a shock to receive your own cancer diagnosis.

“I just thought it was something that wouldn’t happen to me,” says Boston-area resident Jerry Womack. His father and older brother had been treated for prostate cancer, so Jerry made sure he had annual prostate screenings. Beyond that, he just went on with his life as a business executive, choosing not to think about the possibility that he might develop cancer, too.

When testing showed that Jerry’s PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level had risen, his doctor suggested a retest in six months instead of the usual 1-year schedule. (A high PSA level is a potential indicator of prostate cancer.) That next test showed a continued rise, so the doctor ordered a biopsy, which came back positive for prostate cancer. “It wasn’t until that point that it really hit me,” Jerry says.

When he heard the news, Jerry first turned to prayer for spiritual strength. Then he talked with a longtime family friend and prostate cancer survivor who had started the Prostate Health Education Network (PHEN), a Boston-based support and awareness group for African-American men. Jerry had many questions, and was struggling with deciding which treatment to choose.

He attended PHEN meetings and talked with other patients and survivors. “There was a good network there,” he says. The group doesn’t recommend which treatment a man should have; instead, it provides information on all approaches to help the patient make a decision.

“I was trying to do everything to avoid surgery,” Jerry recalls, adding that his concerns centered on the possible side effects of incontinence or impotence. His wife was  supportive and understanding throughout the 5 months it took him to weigh his treatment options.

Because of Jerry’s age, health condition, and disease status, all five doctors he consulted—including a radiation oncologist—recommended surgery. Still, he was worried. “I actually said to God, ‘What is it you want me to do?’ And He very plainly said, ‘I told you five times. You’re just not listening.’” So, in 2004, Jerry had surgery. His PSA levels are now undetectable. The side effects he experienced were temporary.

Throughout that difficult time, Jerry became increasingly active in the community, building awareness of prostate cancer. He joined PHEN’s campaign to educate African-American men about their increased risk of the disease. That commitment became his way of giving back to others the knowledge and support he had received from the patients and survivors who helped him.

In his outreach work, Jerry, now 53, accompanies a hospital van to numerous community events and concerts, encouraging men to get prostate cancer screenings from doctors on the vehicle. He speaks at his church about the importance of early screening, especially for African-American men, and also talks about prostate health at the company where he works. His employer gave him an honor for his activism. “All of the 13,000 people who work (there) now know I’m a prostate cancer survivor,” Jerry says.

Men have told him that because he urged them to get screened, their prostate cancer problems were found and treated earlier than they would have been otherwise. He also brings his message to women because “sometimes men don’t want to listen.” The women then share the information with husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles, and partners.

Jerry gets distressed when he sometimes meets men “who go through treatment and believe they’ve been damaged for life, so they go into a shell.” That reaction, he says, might cause such men to avoid getting the follow-up care they need in recovery. So Jerry talks with them about their feelings, shares his own, and advises them where to get help for their concerns.

“What I try to do,” Jerry says, “every time I have an opportunity to speak, is to bring the message that it (prostate cancer) is something serious, but also that there is a lot of life after diagnosis with cancer, after cancer treatment.”

To learn more about the Prostate Health Network, please visit their website at www.prostatehealthed.org.
     

 

This content was last reviewed August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.
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