By Kevin Begos
A Survivor's Calling
Jim West wants to discuss the cancer that men don't want to discuss
By Kevin Begos
Jim West knows that the words associated with prostate cancer often terrify even strong men. Rectal exams. Impotence. Death. But he also knows that after the operations, the pain and the depression, there can be joy, and life.
"I have a message," thought West, after waking from radical prostate surgery 10 years ago. He was sure there were other men who, from ignorance or fear of the unknown, might not be going for tests or treatments. Instead, they were "living with this dreadful disease," he says, and in too many cases, dying from it. West decided that talking about "pain and healing" to his fellow men was his new calling in life.
There was no denying the need. By the early 1990s, the number of new cases of prostate cancer annually in the U.S. had risen to all-time highs. After stabilizing for a few years the incidence of the disease is increasing again, though deaths are declining due to advances in research and treatment, according to the latest report from the National Cancer Institute. For 2005, the projections were for about 232,000 new cases and 30,350 deaths—a toll second only to lung cancer among men. Black men have prostate cancer at a 60 percent greater rate than white men, and also have a death rate that's twice as high.
"Tell a guy he has cancer, and in a lot of cases they're ready to fall over," says West, 69, a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., and a board member of the Florida Prostate Cancer Network. "It's shocking news to hear. It's still a dirty word."
Speaking about prostate cancer is West's primary calling, but he also does other community volunteer work. For 14 years he cooked meals for homeless men and women on weekends, and he's also active in church groups and in local politics.
Those who work with West on prostate cancer issues say that his ability to connect with people on an emotional level is part of the key to his success. "He's an excellent speaker, and you can tell that he has so much passion to help others," says Cindi Crisci of the American Cancer Society in Pinellas Park, Fla.
Looking back on his life, West recently realized that his ability to speak about cancer comes in part from past experiences. A native of the Caribbean island of Montserrat, he moved to London in the 1950s and began working for the railway system. Even then, he had a reputation for delivering tough talk in an easy way, so much so that after he helped defuse a strike that seemed all but certain, a colleague told him that his "calm head changed the whole thing."
"I think that's Jim," says Rich Brown, a psychologist for the Florida Prostate Cancer Network in Tampa. "He's always the gentleman. He really puts people at ease." Such outreach is crucial because men have the tendency to want to solve the problem on their own, Brown says. "It goes back to the playground. You didn't want to tell anybody you were hurt, because the weak get picked on."