Prostate-Cancer Fight: Good News, Bad News

Health Breakthroughs: Even with more treatment options, some black men still don't have access.

Courtesy of Tony Howard

Medical breakthroughs in curing sickle-cell anemia and treating prostate cancer and HIV/AIDS may dramatically improve life for the millions of people struggling with these diseases, but there are significant barriers that may keep African Americans from receiving this new, high-quality care. This article is the second in a series about how health care costs, policies and even the structure of the health care system may increase, rather than decrease, the health disparities we face. To read other articles in the series, click here.

Sometimes, falling in love can save your life. When Tony Howard, the coach, met Monica Moore, the fitness buff, they got to talking about health. "I didn't go to the doctor often because I was an athlete, so I thought I was OK," Howard says. "But Monica said, 'Let's prove it. Let's both get checkups and see,'" he recalls. "I knew I wanted to date her, so I was happy to stick to the deal."

A few days after his exam, Howard saw his doctor. "I knew something was terribly wrong as soon as I saw his face," he says. "My heart started skipping beats. I couldn't hear anything after he said 'prostate cancer.' I honestly think I was in shock."

Howard found himself in a position familiar to far too many black men: He had advanced prostate cancer early in life (he was only 40), he needed surgery immediately -- and he had no insurance.

A former local basketball star, team manager of the Harlem Globetrotters and teacher, Howard had recently decided to pursue his dream -- the Tony Howard Basketball Academy (pdf), a nonprofit he'd created to inspire young men -- full time. "I was doing OK, but I did not have benefits," Howard says.

"Of course I got a second opinion," Howard recalls. "The doctor, amazingly, offered to do the surgery for free, but his hospital wanted $8,000. There was no way I could afford it."

Howard returned to his first physician, Dr. Isaac Powell, a surgeon at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan. "They said there was a chance that I could qualify for a charitable program from the hospital," Howard says. "I had a modest income, so I didn't think they would help me, but they did the surgery for free. That was two years ago, and I'm OK now. I'm back to serving my community," Howard says, still overcome with gratitude.

Gambling on Getting Good Care

Howard was incredibly fortunate. When it comes to receiving the advanced, high-quality care needed for aggressive prostate cancer, young black men like Howard are often without options. Most hospitals have some form of charitable care, but such programs operate on a case-by-case basis, and coverage is never certain. And while Medicaid covers the indigent in some states and Medicare provides for men over 65, many specialists reject patients from both plans.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.