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Why Harry Belafonte Talks About Prostate Cancer

Harry Belafonte from the Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1997

Singer Harry Belafonte proved it: Real men talk about prostate cancer.

Yes, he had prostate cancer, Belafonte told 500 guests at a benefit for the Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach.

Yes, he had surgery to remove it. Yes, he had problems with incontinence "but, because I was tenacious about doing the {curative} exercises, after one year it no longer existed," he said. And yes, he and his wife still enjoy a level of physical affection that "unifies our lives."

That said, Belafonte, 70, had gotten the topics of prostate cancer and its conversational taboos--incontinence and impotence--out in the open.

Used to be, men didn't want to talk about cancer of the prostate, Belafonte told his mostly female audience at the recent event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach.

Men were just too "macho," he said. "The prostate is something that attacks that central part of the male body that men are very preoccupied with. Somehow, any disorder there means your life is over, you can't be a man anymore, you are now something less."

And, because the magic of Hollywood can turn the public perception of a man into that of "a good-looking tall thing that walks about" it can be even more difficult to discuss it, he said. "The perception of you being somehow omnipotent is tarnished; the insurance companies don't want to insure you--you're not bankable for a play or film."

Belafonte decided to conduct lectures about his bout with prostate cancer so others may "improve their cancer experience and help themselves," he said.

"For a long time, I had watched people speak about cancer in varying degrees of misinformation."

When he learned that he had the disease--he was "quite startled."

"Not that I thought myself untouchable, I just thought myself untouchable. God would not smite me. After all, I was doing good work, I was kind to my neighbors, I raised my children best I could."

Besides, cancer was a woman's disease, he had thought.

"I remember very early on understanding that cancer was something that was more about women--breast cancer, ovarian cancer. I had a social attitude: Cancer is something they have, we don't get that. I thought that somehow women who had cancer visited upon them were somehow socially responsible for their condition; it must have been something they did or something they did not do."

When he learned of his own cancer, he began to understand the frustration women have felt over the ignorance of others about their disease. He also understood he would be faced with the same ignorance from friends and colleagues.

"I began to see what women have been through--the terror," he said.

Fortunately, his cancer was caught early. But there were questions: "What to do about the options? How to treat this {disease} if it turned out to be other than the doctor suspected?"

His doctors at Johns Hopkins University unanimously decided that Belafonte should have surgery. And that prompted another question: "What if they opened me up and found that it wasn't contained?"

When a cancer patient's medical procedures are over, there are still questions: "What is it that I have not done that I would like to do? What is it that I have done that I would like to undo?"

He discovered that he had not done anything he didn't want to do, he said; and he wanted the "wonderful opportunity to do more of the same."

Besides his career as a concert singer, Belafonte has worked for the Peace Corps and UNICEF and in the fight against famine in Africa and the immunization of African children against disease.

Belafonte will continue to sing, work for UNICEF and speak publicly about prostate cancer--the most common cancer and the No. 2 killer behind heart disease among American men, reports say.

"I'm very fatalistic," he said. "If you're going to have it, you're going to have it. It's what you do about it that makes the difference--how you conduct your life." After you have endured the required medical procedures, it's time to "get on with your life," he advised. "Make it work. Live life as fully as possible."

The event at which Belafonte spoke celebrated the 10th anniversary of Circle 1000, a support group of the Hoag Cancer Center. Since it was founded, the group has given the center more than $2 million.

Among guests at the brunch was Dr. Robert O. Dillman, the center's medical director.

"Cancer and men have been kind of ignored for years because heart disease has so much been the major killer," he said. "Most men, once they are diagnosed with prostate cancer, live with it for a long time. It's like breast cancer in that way--something they are dealing with for a long time."

The No. 1 cancer deterrent? "By far and away it is not to smoke," Dillman said. "The association of cancer with smoking is very strong. And it's not just cancer of the lung; it's cancer of the head, neck, esophagus and bladder."

Also among guests: Sandy Sewell, Circle 1000 founding chairwoman; Judy Steele, Circle 1000 chairwoman; and the event's major underwriters, including Ginny Ueberroth, Judie Argyros, Patricia Cox, Donna Crean, Arden Flamson and Nora Hester.


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