Purdue, Indy barbershops partner in new prostate cancer program

December 6, 2011

Teasa Thompson, Affecting Cancer Together program manager and Indiana's prostate cancer health education specialist, speaks with barbers at Kenny's Academy of Barbering. (Purdue University photo/James Schenke)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Barbershops in Indianapolis have partnered with Purdue University in a new program that aims to reduce the number of deaths from prostate cancer, with a focus on African-American and Hispanic communities.

The Purdue University Center for Cancer Research announced the Affecting Cancer Together (ACT) program Tuesday (Dec. 6). The center leads a team of organizations that came together to provide prostate cancer prevention and care.

The program includes cancer awareness, prevention and education and connects people to free screening services. Those diagnosed are connected with financial services, if needed, and health-care professionals who can answer questions and discuss treatment options.

Barbers have volunteered to become lay health motivators who approach their clients, friends and family to raise awareness of prostate cancer, answer questions and dispel myths about the screening process.

Teasa Thompson, Affecting Cancer Together program manager and Indiana's prostate cancer health education specialist, said working from within barbershops is effective because the shops are community hubs where individuals are comfortable and accustomed to having frank conversations.

"Barbers are a trusted information source within the community and have the ability to reach many individuals," Thompson said. "The setting of the barbershop allows for more open dialogues and conversations than a traditional health-care setting. Also some people do not have a regular health-care provider and some individuals who do may not feel comfortable asking questions and discussing certain topics."

Gregory Kenny Sr., owner of Kenny's Academy of Barbering, watches as barber student Alex Banks cuts a customer's hair. Both Kenny and Banks are participating in the Affecting Cancer Together program. (Purdue University photo/James Schenke)

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Gregory Kenny Sr., a participating barber and owner of Kenny's Academy of Barbering, said barbers can use their customer relationships to effectively encourage them to be screened or talk to a health-care professional.

"There is an old saying that no subject is off limits in the barbershop," Kenny said. "The average haircut takes about 30 minutes and you go through a litany of subjects, plus some people come in the barbershop just to talk. There is just something about a barber that makes people trust them and open up to them. "

The number of people affected by prostate cancer in his community is part of what motivated him to join the program, he said.

"The brother of a friend I grew up with was diagnosed when he was in the final stages of the disease, and he was only 40 years old," Kenny said. "Within weeks of him finding out, they were burying him. It was very difficult. Prostate cancer hits very close to home for me."

Kenny also encourages his students to participate in the program.

"Most of my students are young men who aren't yet in the age range for annual screenings, but they have fathers, uncles, and family and friends who they want to educate about prostate cancer," he said. "Empowering people through education is the key. If the disease is caught early, it is curable."

Dale Sharpe, a participating barber and owner of Dale's Barbershop, said he heard about prostate cancer from commercials by the late Rev. Charles Williams, who fought prostate cancer and was a famous advocate for early screening. No one had come to him directly to talk about risk for the disease and screening before Thompson walked through his door, he said.

"Because of Rev. Charles Williams, I knew that prostate cancer takes out good people, but by participating in ACT and through Teasa's education session, I learned details that I didn't have a clue about, like how the disease affects you," he said. "I learned more there than I did when I visited a clinic years ago for a different cancer screening test."

Sharpe said some people he approaches have never heard about prostate cancer, some say they have vaguely heard about it but never followed through with the test and others wonder about his motivations.

Gregory Kenny Sr., at left, listens as Timothy Ratliff, the Robert Wallace Miller Director of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, speaks during the announcement of the Affecting Cancer Together program at Kenny's Academy of Barbering in Indianapolis. (Purdue University photo/James Schenke)

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"When people ask why I am pushing the subject or what I get out of it, I tell them my motive is to save your life," Sharpe said. "If I can talk to 10 people and save two lives out of those 10, then I'll feel I've accomplished something."

The program is open to anyone, but it was designed to reach the African-American and Hispanic communities because of higher rates of death from prostate cancer in these populations, said Timothy Ratliff, the Robert Wallace Miller Director of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research.

Marion County was selected as the first place to launch the program because it has the highest incidence and mortality rate in the state, he said.

"Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men, and waiting until you have uncomfortable symptoms to get tested and diagnosed is too late," said Ratliff, who lost his father-in-law to prostate cancer. "We want men to be able to make informed decisions about screening, get diagnosed early, and have the opportunity for easier and more effective treatments. Ultimately, we want to save lives and reduce the toll this disease takes on this community."

African-American men have a higher incidence of the disease, are more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage and are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than white men, according to the American Cancer Society.

Many men have fears and concerns about prostate cancer screening tests and confuse the digital rectal exam with a colonoscopy, Sharpe said.

"I tell them that I've done it, and it's not like that," he said. "When they see someone like me doing it, they think it must be OK. I just keep doing my part and keep encouraging people. I get them right when they sit down."

If individuals have more questions or are uncomfortable talking with the lay health motivator, Thompson is available to help explain the disease and the process of screening and treatment.

"The lack of information and understanding leads to myths and fears about screening tests that can be overwhelming, and I'm always available to answer questions," Thompson said. "Although the initial focus of the program is prostate cancer, its overarching goal is to increase awareness of all types of cancer. I also encourage people to take care of their overall health - if not for themselves, then for their family and friends who love and care for them."

Thompson said what is unique about the ACT program is that the community helps shape it.

"We are taking the time to get to know people, build relationships and learn what barriers are preventing them from being more proactive about their health and what is holding them back from being screened," she said. "Everyone who participates has a voice and input in the program, and it is heavily based on feedback from the community. The name really says it all. We are in this together."

Approximately 70 barbershops are currently participating in the program.

More information about the program, prostate cancer and upcoming screenings is available online at http://www.cancerresearch.purdue.edu/about/act or by calling 1-855-252-8228.

The program is funded by the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. Donations can be made at https://donate.purdue.edu/Menu.aspx by selecting the Purdue Center for Cancer Research in the drop-down menu and typing "ACT" in the comments box.

ACT aims to connect the community with information about organizations that provide early detection, cancer care and quality of life services. ACT reaches out to various state and non-profit organizations across Indiana and currently works with the American Cancer Society (Great Lakes Division), Indiana Cancer Consortium, IU Simon Cancer Center Urology, Little Red Door Cancer Agency, The Prostate Net, Rev. Charles Williams Prostate Cancer Mobile Screening Unit, St. Vincent Cancer Care, Urology of Indiana and 100 Black Men of Indianapolis Inc.

Ratliff said he plans for the program to branch out into other areas throughout the state and eventually wants to expand the network into beauty salons and to include breast and colon cancers.

Writer:  Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu

Sources:   Teasa Thompson, 855-252-8228, tthompson@purdue.edu

                    Timothy Ratliff, 765-494-9129, tlratliff@purdue.edu

                    Gregory Kenny Sr., 317-635-5900, kennysacademy@yahoo.com

                    Dale Sharpe, 317-513-3253, ddsharpe11@yahoo.com

Related website:

National Cancer Institute  

Note to Journalists: B-roll and sound bites from ACT participants is available for download and use from ftp://news69.uns.purdue.edu/Public/ in a folder named BarberProstateCancer. For more information, contact Jim Schenke, Purdue News Service, at 765-237-7296, jschenke@purdue.edu