On Sunday, June 19, more than a dozen cities across Canada will host the Father’s Day Walk/Run for Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC). This high-profile event is the second largest awareness-and-fundraiser surrounding the disease in eight months, following a successful worldwide moustache-growing Movember campaign that raised over $21 million towards prostate cancer research and support programs in Canada alone.
Although prostate cancer is the most prevalent form of the disease among Canadian men — an estimated 24,600 are diagnosed annually for a 1 in 6 ratio, with 4,300 lives eventually claimed — it’s a subject that has largely been relegated to the media shadows for far too many years.
Since 2009, however, a rejuvenated and rebranded Prostate Canada Canada has concentrated its efforts in expanding knowledge and awareness of this insidious disease, especially since it’s estimated that 250,000 Canadian men may actually be afflicted.
Prostate Cancer Canada president and CEO Steve Jones feels the tide to get the word out there and encourage men to visit their doctor for check-ups and tests is changing. “The fact is, when we started this reincarnation of this foundation about two-and-a-half years ago, what we saw was that prostate cancer was really on the back burner,” Jones explains.
“A lot of other noteworthy causes received a lot of attention, but prostate cancer didn’t, for a number of reasons: Men didn’t like talking about it, and there really wasn’t a united effort across the country to fight prostate cancer. That’s what we’ve been out to change. And before you can find a cure for prostate cancer and do other things, you need to tell people who you are.”
Jones says two of Prostate Cancer Canada’s chief mandates were “to create awareness and to create a footprint in the not-for-profit marketplace and let people know how serious this issue is — that it’s the equivalent to the issue of breast cancer in women.”
One of the more effective tools the organization has employed is creating a symbol to associate with battling prostate cancer: a blue tie.
The emblematic tie has been worn by Members of Parliament in Ottawa while sitting in the House of Commons and the Alberta Legislature.
“We felt prostate cancer deserved its own symbol,” says Jones. “We felt it’s a very natural male symbol. I’m a branding guy, and we wanted something that can have many applications. It’s about to be worn by the legislature in Nova Scotia and it’s been worn by the Hockey Night In Canada guys. You can use a tie very quickly to gain awareness.”
According to Jones, awareness is key in getting men to step up and get their health checked. “A lot of this is about making men sure they understand that starting at the age of 40, they need to be having discussions with their doctor about getting annual PSA [prostate specific antigen] blood test,” he explains. “Men are known for not wanting to have doctors appointments for stuff like that. We need to talk to men more. We need to pump information out on a daily basis.
“Our tie has become as synonymous to prostate cancer as a breast cancer ribbon is to breast cancer, and the more we can do that, the more people will know about the topic and feel more comfortable about going and talking with their doctor.”
In its earliest, most curable form, there often aren’t any indicators that someone has contracted the disease, although later symptoms may include slow or painful urination, blood or pus in the urine, painful ejaculation and pain in the lower back or abdomen, pelvis or upper thighs. If detected, treatment options include surgery, radiation and hormone therapy.
Several tests, including the digital rectal exam and the costly PCA3 molecular tests are available, but Jones recommends the PSA test as currently the most accurate and effective health indicator concerning potential cases of prostate cancer. “The PSA test is something we very much endorse, because it’s the red flag,” says Jones. “If your PSA numbers are going up, that’s the red flag for the doctors to say, ‘Let’s take you in for further tests.’
“Survivors across this country have told me and others over and over again that it was the PSA test that saved their life, because it gave them an indication that something was wrong,” he adds. “It’s the best that we have right now. Doctors across this country and around the world are looking for a better test that is more accurate and could be better. But until it’s found, we very much encourage men to talk with their doctor starting at the age of 40 and have an annual PSA test.”
Also key in the PCC mandate is study. Initially founded in 1994 as The Prostate Cancer Foundation Of Canada, the PCC has funded over 170 research projects dedicated to finding a cure for the illness. In February, the PCC announced it was funding $15 million of a $20 million Canadian research project through the International Cancer Genome Consortium dedicated to decoding the prostate cancer gene.
“We’re trying to crack the prostate cancer genetic code, because they have to identify changes, mutations, and the DNA sequence in the prostate cancer,” says Jones. “So we think that the information about those can better detect tumours, determine tumour aggressiveness and identify the best treatment.
“The information will take time. It’ll be available within the next five years. But to do this properly, we felt we had to have the best from around the world, so it’s an international consortium of the best minds to fight against prostate cancer.”
As with any cancer — an umbrella term for diseases that involve uncontrolled cell growth, according to the PCC website — the facts on the prostate version yield more questions than answers.
Aside from the agreement that cancer occurs when genes mutate and lose control of the orderly way in which the body divides, matures and kills cells — thus resulting in cells growing and dividing unchecked — the research community is still baffled in many cases as to the cause of this occurrence.
For example, the basis for prostate cancer isn’t linked to any single source: age, diet, weight, environment, ethnicity and family history can all be factors. Even certain professions seem to court higher risks of prostate cancer, most notably agricultural workers (a 40 percent increase) —who work with chemical carcinogens found in certain insecticides — and firefighters, who also face dangerous chemical exposure in their line of duty.
The good news? Prostate cancer grows slowly and doesn’t spread outside the prostate quickly. If diagnosed early enough, most men will be cured.
The not-so-good-news? It seems the older you are, the more your chances of developing prostate cancer increase significantly. According to stats available on the PCC website, the risk more than doubles from 0.2 percent for those under 50 to 2.13 percent in the bracket from 50 to 59. That percentage triples to 6.7 percent in the 60 to 69 bracket; drops slightly from 70 to 75 to 5.25 percent, then skyrockets to 11.6 percent for those 75 and over.
It’s worth nothing that more than 80 percent of all prostate cancers are diagnosed in men over 65, with 90 percent of men dying from this disease also members of this age group.
There are also some alarming geography stats: men of African or Caribbean descent are 65 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer that Caucasian Americans. Their risk is also 100 times of a Chinese man living in China.
The risk of prostate cancer in Asian men is five times higher in North America than on their own home turf, with the suggestion that the high-fat Western diet is the culprit that may increase the creation of the hormone testosterone, which also may perpetuate the growth of prostate cancer cells.
Jones says researchers are at a loss to explain this phenomenon. “They don’t know why, but it’s a very interesting question,” he admits. “Men of African or Caribbean descent do have a higher incident rate. One other interesting stat is that in Asia, the incident rates are very low. But when Asian men come over here to live, the rates go up.
“Logic tells you it could be something in the diet, something in the environment – something, but we don’t know. There isn’t an answer to that yet, but we as an organization know we need to get a very strong message about to the ethnic communities, and we’ve started programs to do that.”
Support is also crucial, and Jones says one of the PCC’s key goals is to set up affiliate networks throughout Canada.
“We believe that because men can develop prostate cancer and have it for even decades, that we needed to do a better job of supporting those affected by prostate cancer,” he explains. “So half of our time and energy is spent on developing a support network across Canada.
“A couple of years ago, there was a very loose organization called the Canadian Prostate Cancer Network, which looked after support groups of prostate cancer survivors in cities and towns across Canada, but was very loosely organized, supplying them with booklets and a once-a-year conference.
“We saw the potential future in this as being the greatest source of volunteerism, funding and awareness that we could generate. If we could offer more structure and do more for them, there were about 10,000 men in support groups across Canada, and yet there were 250,000 men who they suspect have prostate cancer. We were only reaching about 5 percent of them.
“We’ve gotten them to join us. Today we have 58 groups in every province in Canada that have now taken on our name. Now they’re called Prostate Cancer Canada Network Calgary, or Regina, or Halifax. They’ve all signed affiliation agreements.
“We’re now developing programs for them so that we can have centers across the country where they’re open five days a week and we can have counseling and all sorts of things so we can talk to prostate cancer survivors.
“We starting new groups every week. We’re very excited about this. We feel it’s very much the future of our organization to make sure that survivors know that they’re never alone.”
There are also options of preventable measures that one alone can take to decrease the risk of contracting prostate cancer.
According to doctors, a low-fat diet absent of foods rich in saturated fats and high in fibre (fruits and vegetables) are recommended, as scientists feel the fats may be metabolized into testosterone and thus result in an increased risk of prostate cancer.
Since the risk of prostate cancer in Asian men is five times higher in North America than on their own home turf, there is the suggestion that the high-fat Western diet is the culprit that may increase the creation of the hormone testosterone, which also may perpetuate the growth of prostate cancer cells.
Further information available on the PCC website emphasizes that the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like trout, anchovies, white albacore tuna and bluefish, have all been proven to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells. These acids are also found in leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries.
This information and more can be found on the PCC website, and Jones says his organization will continue to mobilize with more participants and by staging more events to raise funds and awareness in the fight against prostate cancer.
“We are setting out to make sure that at some point, every man in Canada knows what we’re about, and if they get prostate cancer, they know who to turn to for support and counseling, “ notes Jones. “We’re raising a lot more money now not only to create more awareness, but also for better research. And we’re really still in the young stages of this fight.”