Defense Secretary Austin's secret surgery raises issue of prostate cancer silence among Black men

Dr. Whitney Smith says one in six African American males will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Thursday, January 11, 2024
Defense secretary's surgery raises issue of prostate cancer silence
Defense Secretary Austin's secret surgery raises issue of prostate cancer silence among Black men

WYNDMOOR, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- The story of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's secret surgery for prostate cancer has gained national headlines.

But behind those headlines is another story: men who are reluctant to discuss prostate cancer. It's a big issue, especially in the African American community, which is impacted at a higher rate.

RELATED: Austin treated for early prostate cancer, serious intestinal complications: Walter Reed

Courtney Russell, of Wyndmoor, is among the many African American men impacted by prostate cancer. He found out 15 years ago after undergoing a routine physical for life insurance.

"I got a letter stating that I'd been rejected," said Russell.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Israel Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, after their meeting in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel on Dec. 18, 2023.
AP photo/ Maya Alleruzzo

The diagnosis was a surprise to the otherwise healthy and active Russell who was only 58 years old at the time.

"I had no symptoms. None whatsoever," he said.

"Prostate cancer may not have any symptoms," said Dr. Whitney Smith, a urologist with Jefferson Health. She, though, also sees patients who do have symptoms.

RELATED: President Biden wasn't aware for days that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized

"Oftentimes there are urinary symptoms, so you feel like you need to go to the bathroom more frequently," said Smith whose father and grandfather were both diagnosed with prostate cancer, encouraging her to pursue a career as a urologist.

African American men are more likely to be affected by prostate cancer.

"One in six African American males will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime," she said. "They are twice as likely to die of the disease compared to their white counterparts."

It's partly because of genetic factors and partly because of health disparities. Still, she and others see many African American men are still reluctant to have a conversation about prostate cancer.

"I definitely believe that it does have a stigma attached to it," said Russell.

"The side effects associated with treatment can be embarrassing, such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction," said Smith of the possible reasons why men are reluctant to discuss treatment.

Defense Secretary Austin didn't initially reveal his prostate cancer diagnosis or his recent surgery.

RELATED: Pentagon inspector general to investigate mishandling of Austin's hospitalization

Russell understands why that may be the case.

"A lot of men, well, keep it inside," he said. "They don't want this to be known about them."

Russell wishes more men would talk about the issue and discover something he learned.

"It's not a death sentence," he said.

Smith agrees, adding that prostate cancer has high rates of survival, especially with early detection.

"Approximately 95% to 90% of males diagnosed with prostate cancer will go on to have long healthy lives," she said.

Russell is among those prostate cancer survivors living healthy, full lives 15 years after he opted for surgery. He uses his experience to encourage other men to have important conversations on prostate cancer.

"We need to be aware and help others understand," he said.

The Jefferson Men's Health program is doing a lot of outreach on prostate cancer, offering resources that range from information to treatment options. For more information, visit: