“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the Black community and for Black men. I hope my story can encourage other men to get prostate cancer screenings and possibly save a life. Every life is important," says Larry J. Ferguson, DMD.
Like a cheerleader at a pep rally before the big game, Marvella Ford, PhD, leads participants of the SC AMEN Program in a cheer.
“Early detection,” she chants, pausing for the response.
“Saves lives!” respond the participants.
It’s a call and response that’s not standard fare for the more than 25 members of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, who have gathered virtually on Sept. 11 for this inaugural session of a prostate cancer prevention, awareness and navigation to screening program. That’s the point, though. Ford, associate director of Population Science and Cancer Disparities at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, wants to get out into the community to drill home the message.
“One of the most positive aspects of the SC AMEN Program is that it focuses on Black men, who have sometimes been overlooked by the medical community,” Ford said. “This program creates a safe space for participants to share their comments, concerns and stories to help improve prostate cancer screening rates.”
The SC AMEN Program aims to reduce prostate cancer mortality rates in South Carolina Black men age 40 to 65 by increasing their prostate cancer knowledge and improving their prostate cancer screening rates. The program, supported by the TD Bank Foundation, hopes to raise awareness about prostate cancer, which disproportionally affects Black men who oftentimes present with later-stage disease and have worse overall outcomes. In fact, the prostate cancer death rate in South Carolina is 2.5 times higher for Black men than for white men with this disease.
Participants of the SC AMEN Program begin by attending a training session, led by Ford and program manager Melanie Slan, which covers topics including the importance of exercise and listening to your body, tips on a healthy diet and prostate cancer screening and early detection. They are then evaluated using a pre-test, post-test and three-month follow-up survey to gather information about whether they received prostate cancer screenings and increased their knowledge of prostate cancer. Those who complete the program receive monetary compensation.
“We fully expect that this inaugural session of the SC AMEN Program is just the beginning,” Ford said. “As more people learn about the prostate cancer education and screening navigation services that are offered through the program, they will choose to participate.”
Ending health disparities and saving lives in South Carolina is a personal mission for dentist Larry J. Ferguson, DMD, who served as the keynote speaker and primary organizer for this session. Ferguson knows just how important screenings, early intervention and education are. His own journey with prostate cancer began in 2012, when Ferguson and his primary care doctor noticed his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels were above normal.
“When I saw my PSA levels rising above the recommended levels, I went into denial,” he said. “I didn’t want to think about the possibility of having prostate cancer and going through treatment. Fear was setting into my heart, and I’m a doctor.”
Ferguson shared his story with the other men who took part in the SC AMEN Program session. In 2016, following his annual PSA blood test, Ferguson’s primary care physician referred him to Hollings researcher Thomas Keane, MD, who is also the chair of the MUSC Department of Urology.
“Having attended school at MUSC for dentistry, there wasn’t a question in my mind where I wanted to go for treatment,” Ferguson said.
For the next four years, Keane actively monitored Ferguson’s cancer through rounds of biopsies and MRIs. Active surveillance was chosen as the course of treatment due to the size and nonaggressive nature of Ferguson’s prostate cancer. In 2020, results of surveillance tests showed the tumor pattern was becoming more aggressive. In February 2021, Ferguson was put on hormone reduction medication to reduce testosterone levels to help to prevent the cancer from growing further.
In addition to that medication, Ferguson was referred to Hollings researcher David Marshall, MD, who is also the chair of the MUSC Health Department of Radiation Oncology, for radiation treatment. Due to his tumor responding well to the hormone reduction medication, Marshall told Ferguson he would only need 20 rounds of radiation, versus the 28 they had originally planned for. Radiation wrapped up in June, and Ferguson came off the hormone medication in August 2021.
“My journey with prostate cancer continues today. I am walking my journey as I speak with other men in the SC AMEN Program. That is important to me because I want to develop a prostate cancer ministry so that we can encourage one another — both current patients and prostate cancer survivors.”
By sharing his experiences, Ferguson hopes to affect other men and encourage them to get early, and routine, prostate cancer screenings. He’s excited about starting the conversation about a cancer that many men don’t feel comfortable talking about.
“I know of too many men who have suffered from this disease, and they suffered in silence. They didn’t feel like they could talk to anyone. I want to be as transparent as I can with other men about my story to encourage other men to talk about prostate cancer and get screened. That’s what the SC AMEN Program helps to do.”
Marshall said early detection of prostate cancer truly saves lives. It is a big reason why he is supportive of the SC AMEN Program’s efforts to educate medically underserved communities about lifesaving screenings.
“The more we can communicate the need for screenings and the availability of treatment options at Hollings that result in a high quality of life, the better,” Marshall said. “I applaud the efforts of Dr. Marvella Ford and her team to get this important message out and to navigate the participants to prostate cancer screening.”
Ford said the inaugural session was a huge success, and they’re already getting calls to book more sessions throughout the state. “This is the tip of the iceberg, and this is going to snowball. We’re so appreciative of the support of the TD Bank Foundation to launch this key initiative in our state.”
Ferguson also believes that this is just the beginning for the SC AMEN Program. He credits his doctors at Hollings for helping to make life after cancer possible so he can educate others. “My own cancer journey helped open my eyes to just how important Hollings is to Charleston and South Carolina as a whole.”
By educating and encouraging a space for dialogue among men, Ferguson believes more lives will be saved, thanks to early screening, prevention and treatment.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the Black community and for Black men,” he said. “I hope my story can encourage other men to get prostate cancer screenings and possibly save a life. Every life is important. These men represent somebody’s father, husband, brother and an important community member. Those lives are needed. Those lives count.”
Black men age 40 to 65 who are interested in participating in the SC AMEN Program should contact program manager Melanie Slan at 843-876-2427 or email@example.com.