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Styling Hair, Saving Lives

City Barber Coaches Customers About Fighting Prostate Cancer

May 27, 2006
By HILARY WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer

With a captive audience and an array of razor-sharp cutting instruments always at the ready, Ophni Davis could use his barber chair as a bully pulpit.

But the Blue Hills Avenue barber's style of proselytizing is more like gentle persuasion.

When a man who appears to be around 40 settles into the chair for a haircut or a shave, Davis might casually mention that he recently had a test for prostate cancer.

"I ask him, what does he know about prostate cancer," says Davis, a local leader in "Going to the Barbershop to Fight Prostate Cancer," a program that seeks to save African American men from prostate cancer by educating them on comfortable turf.

"For a black man the barbershop is the country club," says Virgil Simons, a prostate cancer survivor who started the barbershop project two years ago.

Information provided by barbers in cities including Hartford, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, New York and San Diego prompted more than 10,000 men to get tested for prostate cancer in 2004, Simons said. Last year, more than 12,000 were screened.

Hartford Hospital trained 15 Hartford barbers to talk to their customers about prostate cancer in 2004. This year, the program will expand into Bridgeport and New Haven with the help of a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Talking to a total stranger about the gland in the male reproductive system that makes and stores a component of semen may seem a delicate subject for public discussion, even between a barber and his client.

But because black men are twice as likely as white men to die of prostate cancer, this is no time to worry about decorum, Davis said.

Charles Campbell was in Davis' chair when the barber mentioned prostate cancer. Campbell, who is 39, said that frankly he has been a little worried about his frequent need to make urgent trips to the bathroom.

In the center of the barbershop is a computer with a flat-screen monitor provided by Prostate Net, the national prostate cancer education group that Simons founded following his diagnosis 11 years ago.

The computer offers information about prostate cancer prevention and screening and offers a coupon for a free haircut to any man who completes a survey about his family history and knowledge about the disease.

Campbell said he had planned to rely on the computer for answers. But he became so concerned that he accepted Davis' invitation to an evening information session earlier this week at the shop hosted by Simons and Dr. Andrew Salner, director of Hartford Hospital's Helen and Harry Gray Cancer Center.

Outside Davis' Shallimar Unisex Salon, the sidewalks of this largely Caribbean American neighborhood swarmed with residents enjoying a spring evening.

Inside, the tone was serious as a handful of middle-aged men sitting on folding chairs asked long-pondered questions such as how to choose between surgery and radiation if prostate cancer is found.

There was talk about prevention (start by eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting out the fried foods); side effects (everyone was worried about impotence and incontinence); and how to differentiate between cancer and benign prostate enlargement (frequent urination and weak stream are usually signs of benign disease, not cancer).

After about an hour of polite inquiry, Virgil Simons, who drove up from his Hackensack, N.J., headquarters for the evening, pulled up a chair and the talk got down and dirty.

He confided that "you will lose 2 inches" as a result of prostate surgery. He told the guys that he was lucky. Unlike about half the men who have prostate cancer surgery, he did not experience erectile problems. But he was among the large group of men who are temporarily incontinent after surgery.

The prospect of a digital rectal exam, part of the recommended annual screening for black men after 40 and white men over 50, made everyone squirm. But they seemed willing to take the annual recommended blood test that measures prostate specific antigen, or PSA.

"It requires a brave man to make that decision, to say I want to know this information," Simons told the group.

After refreshments of wrap sandwiches and chips, Campbell left the shop with a packet of information and a new resolve to make an appointment for a free screening.

"I think I'm going to try the diet first," Campbell said. He said he would cut out two of his favorite meals, fried chicken and fried dumplings. "I'm a bit worried about it. I want to be on the safe side."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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