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'We have to talk about it': After prostate cancer diagnosis, man urges others to get screened

"When someone says you have cancer you don’t hear anything else after that," Tony Hillery told TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

After Tony Hillery underwent surgery to treat his prostate cancer two years ago, he called every man he knew and urged them to undergo screening.

“Men, we don’t talk about health. We talk about everything else under the sun, but we don’t talk about health,” Hillery, 62, the founder and CEO of Harlem Grown, a non-profit organization providing hands-on education in urban farming, told TODAY. “That has to change, especially in Black men because we are like three times more likely than white men to get it. But we don’t talk about it so I called everybody in my phone.”

Every time Tony Hillery meets a Black man he asks him if he's been screened for prostate cancer. He hopes more men undergo screening for prostate cancer earlier so they can receive more successful treatment. Courtesy Tony Hillery

After those calls, many of his friends were screened and five of them, including Hillery’s brother, learned they had prostate cancer.

“I’m proud to say they all had taken care of it early on, all five of them,” he said. “Everybody’s well.”

From unhealthy habits to fit and proactive

When Hillery was in his 40s, he was overweight and taking blood pressure and cholesterol medications. As his doctors considered increasing his dosages, he decided to change his diet and became a vegan. He lost 52 pounds and watched his blood pressure, cholesterol and fatty liver all improve.

“They just dropped dramatically to where actually 10 years later on, I take a multivitamin and a baby aspirin every day. At 62, that’s pretty good,” he said. “That’s a huge amount of weight but just think about how unhealthy that is. It’s bad for your heart, it’s bad for your knees and your ankles and joints. It’s just bad all around.”

With his new focus on his health, he also regularly visited his doctors and underwent recommended screening for his prostate specific antigen levels. While he didn’t know much about what PSA was, he became concerned when the numbers increased.

“I was watching my PSA levels just kick upward by points … three years in a row,” he explained. “I brought it up to my doctor, who told me that at my age it’s normal to fluctuate. But fluctuation means up and down — this is just going up.”

After receiving a prostate cancer diagnosis, Tony Hillery called every man in his phone and asked them to be screened for the cancer. Five people, including his brother, learned they had prostate cancer and were able to undergo early treatment. Courtesy Tony Hillery

He followed up with a urologist and she recommended Hillery visit Dr. Ash Tewari, chair of the department of urology at Mount Sinai Health System. Hillery felt stunned by what Tewari told him.

“He does the exam, it’s swollen — with the MRI and biopsy — and then bingo, I got it,” Hillery said. “It was a surreal experience … It’s like, ‘No, it’s impossible.’ When someone says you have cancer you don’t hear anything else after that.”

Prostate cancer and high-risk populations

“Prostate cancer is one of the most common male cancers ... and it’s going to kill about 34,000 men, that’s here in the United States,” Tewari told TODAY. “It’s a pretty serious health issue.”

According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. Prostate cancer is more common among older men and risk rises after age 50.

While screening for men normally starts when they are 55, some groups are recommended to start earlier because they are at higher risk. High-risk groups include:

  • Black men.
  • Men with a family history.
  • Men exposed to certain chemicals, such as Agent Orange.
  • First responders.

Detecting it early leads to successful treatment, but encouraging regular screenings can be tough.

“The challenge is that this is a cancer which will not produce any symptoms until it has become incurable,” Tewari said. “If we want to cure it ... we have to find it before it has produced any symptoms.”

Tony Hillery was scared when he learned he had cancer and needed surgery to remove his prostate. Still, he realized early detection helped his outcome and feels dedicated to encouraging other men to take their health seriously. Courtesy Tony Hillery

Prostate cancer screenings can be done by either a blood test that monitors levels of PSA, which increase when a person has prostate cancer, or a rectal exam. Black men are at higher risk of developing prostate cancer and also dying from it.

“Higher mortality is more troubling and that higher mortality discussion is tied to more than one thing,” Tewari said. “Partially, it could be because of increased aggressiveness of the cancer but I have a feeling it also has a major underpinning of when they present (to their doctor).”

Some might fear undergoing a prostate examination or screening and put it off. That’s why Tewari wants to increase efforts to reach more men. He started the Mount Sinai Robert F. Smith Mobile Prostate Cancer Screening Unit to bring prostate screening to Black men in New York City by partnering with churches, community groups, barber shops and other locations. It should be up and running by the end of the year.

“We also wanted to involve a higher level of genomic testing and the PSA testing and the ultrasound testing,” he said. “We will come to them and see if we can help them in answering their questions and increasing awareness — and if they want to be screened, we’ll be right there.”

Dr. Ash Tewari started a mobile clinic that will bring prostate cancer screenings to Black communities. He hopes it helps with earlier detection and better survival among Black men. Courtesy Mount Sinai Health System

Like many other regular health exams, prostate cancer screenings have gone down during the COVID-19 pandemic and Tewari hopes that men begin understanding the importance of prostate health.

“This is not the time to scale it down,” he said. “Be cautious, be vigilant and do everything possible, not just for COVID, but also for the prostate.”

‘That has to change’

Tewari performed robotic surgery to remove Hillery's prostate and after two years, he is still cancer-free. Any time Hillery meets another Black man, he asks if he’s had prostate cancer screening.

“People react a little standoffish at first. But then when I explain why I am asking, people listen,” he said. “We don’t talk about it. That has to change. Things don’t just go away on their own and things don’t get better on their own. So we have to talk about it.”

He hopes that when people hear about his experience they realize the importance of cancer screenings.

“When (guys) go through their regular routine that they’ve been doing for the last 30, 40 years of talking about their sports teams, talking about their job and how much money they make … they can talk about their health. Health is all we have,” he said. “Too many people find out about that when it’s too late.”

CLARIFICATION (September 10, 2021, 12:39 p.m. ET): It was unclear in an earlier version of the story that Tewari performed Hillery's robotic surgery.