Band of Brothers
By David Chesnick, Photos by Alex Stafford
FOR ACTIVIST HENRY BLYDEN, PROVIDING FREE PROSTATE CANCER SCREENING TO AN UNDERSERVED COMMUNITY IS MISSION-CRITICAL.
Knowing that early detection is the key to combating prostate cancer, more than 50 men attended the 9th Annual Free Prostate Screening event sponsored by the African-American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi and Dattoli Cancer Foundation at the North Sarasota Library on a chilly Saturday morning in January.
While the emphasis of these yearly screenings is on the African-American community, the event is open to everyone. Every man who attends has his blood drawn to get his PSA count and gets a digital exam to see if there are any abnormalities with his prostate. Quick. Simple. And quite possibly lifesaving.
Bernie Clifford, 77, a snowbird from Chicago, attends every year with a group of 10 to 12 buddies who make a day of it. They get screened, play a round of golf, and have lunch.
“We enjoy it, “Bernie says. “The people who administer the tests are friendly – it doesn’t feel like a doctor’s office – and the guys from the frat are always fun to spend time with. More importantly, I think one or two guys from the group have discovered they have the disease, so this probably helped to save some lives.”
Lymus Dixon, 65, is another regular who’s also been coming since the event started. A Mason who has served as Worshipful Master four times and as Deputy District Grandmaster, he passes out flyers and encourages the men in his lodge to get screened.
“I think it’s something every African-American man needs to do. It’s free, and people should take advantage of it. And Henry gives me a big push every year.”
Henry would be Henry Blyden. An out-sized guy with a smile and personality to match, Henry is all about getting involved in this and a host of other community activities.
The father of three and grandfather of six has served on a number of boards and foundations, including Take Stock in Children, Suncoast Community Capital, and the North Sarasota Library Friends board. He is an active member of the NAACP, Gamma Xi Boule of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, Humanities Working to End Genocide, and the Association for the Studies of African-American Life and History. He’s also a 32nd degree Mason and Shriner. In short, Henry keeps busy.
Born in the American Virgin Islands, this cyclone of energy grew up on Tortola and then joined the Army at the age of 18 in 1963. He did tours in Vietnam, Panama and Germany before being sent to Sarasota in 1977 as an Army recruiter. When he retired in 1983, he decided to stay here and make his home in Bradenton.
But while his Army career ended after 20 years, his desire to serve didn’t.
After his discharge, he took classes through the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, got his certification, and by 1999 was named the Florida Professional of the Year by the Association for his work with recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
His successes with this population came to the attention of the Wellness Community of Sarasota, and he was asked to facilitate groups for them. It was through that work that he met Virginia ‘Ginya’ Carnahan of the nonprofit Dattoli Cancer Foundation.
The Foundation had begun an outreach program offering free screenings in 2001. Nine years ago, the Foundation partnered with Kappa Alpha Psi Alumni, which Henry has been a member of for 20 years, to bring the annual event to more African-American men.
A Concerned Health Advocate
Henry, as he so often does, stepped up to lead the effort for the fraternity. And as one of the community’s most active and respected figures, he’s been pivotal in several of the fraternity’s outreach programs. Little surprise then that he was soon leading the fraternity’s efforts to get the word out to a population that is, unfortunately, underserved in the battle against prostate cancer.
According to Carnahan, the partnership has proved ideal. “Henry’s influence in the community is the perfect match for the Foundation’s mission to raise awareness of the widespread incidence of prostate cancer and the need for early and annual screening exams.”
Henry has approached this mission over the years with his usual full-on dedication, visiting churches, barbershops and grocery stores, passing out flyers and talking to folks about the importance of prostate screenings for African-Americans. By the time he’s finished, he’s visited every African-American church in Sarasota and Bradenton, making their congregations aware of the disease and the danger it poses, to African-American men in particular (see Sidebar below).
“I’ve got all kinds of spiels, but it’s hard to get men out to get themselves checked. A lot of men just don’t want to know.
“I prefer to talk to women, because they say they want their husbands, brothers, fathers and boyfriends around. So, I tell them that they need to talk to their men about getting checked. I tell them to get their men to come in, and if they don’t want to, to bring them.”
Henry’s efforts are ably assisted by his frat brother John Westmoreland, 59, who has attended the event every year. “I understand the reluctance of Black men to get checked,” John says. “But if they see other Black men encouraging them, they’re more likely to come out. And considering the prevalence of the disease among African-American men, they need that nudge.”
While hundreds have availed themselves of the screenings, there’s no telling how many have been helped by the efforts of the fraternity and the Foundation. The results are sent directly to the men who were screened, along with encouragement to follow up with a urologist if their results showed a high PSA level or if something was discovered in their exam that gave reason for concern.
But the numbers aren’t what motivates Henry. Getting the information out there that can help others is what matters. Which is why it makes sense that when you call Henry and get his answering service, the music that plays is Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. Perfect for a guy who’s doing all he can to make that classic tune a reality.
African-American Men and Prostate Cancer
Nearly one in five African-American men will develop prostate cancer.
About five percent of them will die from the disease, making it the fourth leading cause of death among African-American men. In fact, according to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, African-American men may well have the highest incidence of prostate cancer in the world.
The odds increase significantly for those with a family history of the disease. If one immediate family member has had prostate cancer, the odds of being diagnosed are one in three. Two family members with the disease increases the risk to 83 percent. Three immediate family members, and the risk rises to a staggering 97 percent.
Why? Science doesn’t yet have an answer, but research suggests that genetics and hormonal differences, lifestyle and a diet high in fat, as well as occupational exposures, may all play a part. But whatever the cause, it makes it even more important for African-American men to know the symptoms – urinating more frequently, urinating in the middle of the night, and blood in the urine. The American Cancer Society recommends that they begin getting screened at age 45, and at the age of 40 if there is a family history.
There is good news!
According to Durado Brooks, MD, director of prostate and colorectal cancer at the American Cancer Society, “Almost 100 percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer in its earliest stage will be alive five years later.”
The lesson: Get screened. A simple PSA test and digital exam could be lifesaving.