Friends Reunite over Cancer, Common Cause

Four childhood friends reunited when they learned they all had cancer. They wrote a book about their shared experience, You Have Cancer. Benjamin Priestly, Ronald Bazile and Preston Edwards discuss their reactions upon hearing those three dreaded words in our Behind Closed Doors segment.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They are three words nobody wants to hear: You have cancer. For most people, those words signal the start of a frightening and often painful journey - and for many a lonely one. For our next guests, learning that they had cancer also led a renewed understanding of themselves and the nature of friendship. The book is titled "You Have Cancer," and it's the story of how four childhood friends helped each other cope with life threatening bouts of the disease. For our weekly Behind Closed Doors conversation, we invited three of the authors to join us and tell us their stories. Benjamin Priestly is with us from Portland, Oregon. Ronald Bazile is on the line from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And Preston Edwards is in New Orleans. Gentlemen, welcome. Thanks for talking to us.

Mr. RONALD BAZILE: Hello.

Mr. PRESTON EDWARDS: Hello.

Mr. BENJAMIN PRIESTLY: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: I'm so glad to have you. Mr. Edwards, your story is the first in the book. Will you tell us how you found out about your cancer, and then how you figured how your friends were all so sick?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, first, I found out about Ben's cancer before I found out about mine. And was really disappointed that a third party had to tell. And was angry at Ben and called him to find out why he didn't tell me. And he explained and I understood, but six weeks later, I was diagnosed with cancer, and I didn't tell him. I found out that I had cancer watching Monday Night Football. I just put my hand on my neck to feel my neck - I don't know why I do that - and I felt a small nodule. I asked my wife to put her hand on it to feel it, and she said I've got a see a doctor. And I said, okay. I did, and the doctor said that he was going have to do a biopsy. By the time he did the biopsy, the nodule which my wife couldn't feel was the size of a lemon. That was in, like, a period of 20 days. So that just goes to show you how fast cancer progresses. But six weeks later, I found out about our other, Ellis, had cancer. And I said, I don't know what's going on. Ellis had cancer, he didn't tell us. And Benny didn't tell us, but Benny had cancer.

And we all grew up together, said let me check on Ronald. So I called Ronald and asked him if he knew about Benny. He said no. I asked him if he knew about Ellis. He said no. And I said, Ronald, I have cancer, too. And he said, guess what? I said, what? He said, I was diagnosed with prostate last week.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. And, in fact - here, let me read a passage from the book that really struck me.

(Reading) "When each was diagnosed with cancer, he was unaware that his best childhood friends were also diagnosed with the dreaded disease, and that each had heard the same horrifying words: You have cancer. It seemed a strange, cruel coincidence that these men who practically started life together might end it that way as well."

That is pretty powerful stuff. But Mr. Priestly, I have to ask you, why do you think you didn't tell each other?

Mr. PRIESTLY: Well, I don't know. It's probably connected to why we expose our diseases, because we knew so many - men in particular - didn't say anything to anybody, closet themselves, insolated themselves, and I guess I fell into that same category for a while. And it took me a while to kind of thaw it out. I had to tell people, because I just don't like to tell people bad news, anyway.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. How did you find out that you had cancer?

Mr. PRIESTLY: Well, I used to have all kind of funny episodes of feeling sick at night and nauseated and going to the emergency rooms, and they never found anything. And then one doctor got smart and x-rayed me while I was in the bed, and he came back told me he saw something in my lung. And it went to the laboratory, and the pulmonologist called me in and told that I had some spots on the right lobe of my lung. And so he had recommended surgery. And I said, okay, let's do it. And then, that's when I decided to go back home, tell me wife and my children. But right after I left the clinic, I had two cigarettes in my top pocket. And I decided to smoke them right then and there. And from that day on, I don't smoke at all anymore.

MARTIN: Mr. Bazile, you were diagnosed with prostate cancer. Is that right?

Mr. BAZILE: Yes, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

MARTIN: That disease seems to be a special challenge as far as getting men to go in for screening and for treatment. You think that might be - I mean, obviously, all of you are hard headed, right? We're getting that message. But…

Mr. BAZILE: Right.

Mr. PRIESTLY: Right.

MARTIN: But what about that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, generally, every year, I get a check up. I was late getting a check up, and my doctor found out that I had prostate cancer. It was in the late stages. Another set of doctors came on board, and they didn't get to me until about a year later.

MARTIN: So there was quite a bit of lag time between the time you initially took the screening test and when you actually found out the results. So, Mr. Edwards, let me go back to you. How did this fight with cancer change you? In fact, change all of you?

Mr. EDWARDS: I think it gave us a little more purpose and determination to fight the cancer knowing that our best friends were going through the same thing.

We began to look into this and we realized that, hey, something is wrong if all of us have cancer. And we found out that African American men have the highest cancer incidence and death rate. And when we saw that we also saw - as Benny said earlier - that we don't talk about it.

And we realized that, hey, we have to publicize this, because we're being attacked by cancer. Cancer's like an enemy attacking us in the night and we don't know it. I mean, I didn't have any pain when I was diagnosed with the cancer. It wasn't like something was hurting me real bad and I went to the doctor. I found that out quite by accident.

So I was blessed - lucky to find that out. So we wanted to document this. And we found out in our research that when you build awareness of cancer it leads to early detection, and early detection increases the cure rate.

MARTIN: I think it's nice how you avoided my question, which is…

Mr. EDWARDS: Okay. Tell me…

MARTIN: …how did it affect you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

You're still hard headed.

Mr. EDWARDS: Right. Okay. Repeat the question again, Michel. All right.

MARTIN: How do you think…

Mr. EDWARDS: I have these points.

MARTIN: I see. How do you think your fight with cancer changed you - changed all of you?

Mr. EDWARDS: I think it changed us because we're no longer afraid to talk about it. Okay? We became advocates - we became advocates to build awareness of cancer in the African American community. But, you know, right now we're on a mission not only to build awareness in the African American community. This involves everybody over 40 - everyone over 40 needs to have an annual physical.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. EDWARDS: Particularly African American, and particularly African American men.

MARTIN: Mr. Priestly, what about you? How do you think this whole fight has changed you?

Mr. BENJAMIN PRIESTLY (Co-author, You Have Cancer): Well, like he said - and I think he was completely accurate. I'm just a stubborn person, you know. And the first thing I thought was I need to alter my habits, which were the bad habits like cigarettes.

Another was I did not let this cancer fester to the point where I'm going to give up. My thought was I shall fight, and that's the way I've been basically all my life. And the other part would be that those that I thought may not be interested in what was going on with me, I found you had many more allies out there than foes, including my three buddies, including my family, including friends. So those are things that you - you begin to cherish those things.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're speaking with the authors of You Have Cancer. It's about a group of friends who discover that they've all been diagnosed with the disease.

And I have to note here that when you all started out this journey there were four of you, and your friend Ellis Brossett lost his battle with cancer. How did that affect all of you? Mr. Edwards?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, it really gave us a more determined attitude to publish the book. When Ellis left New Orleans last time going back to Atlanta, his wife Joyce said that he had the book with him. And he told her that he was going back, go to the doctor, go home and work on this book.

Ellis went to the doctor. The doctor put him in the hospital and he never went home.

MARTIN: Oh.

Mr. EDWARDS: But because of that we had an increased determination that we are going to publish this book.

MARTIN: So I was going to ask you this. How did you get the idea for this book? It's not like you weren't dealing with anything. You all had stuff to deal with. How did the idea for the book come out?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, the idea came up in a conversation I had with Ellis. When I found out about Ellis I called his wife and she told me the whole story. She told me that Ellis had kept it a secret for five years.

So when Ellis came to the phone he said - I said, how are you doing. He said, I'm not doing well, Preston. He said, I'm not going to make it. I said, Well, Ellis, don't tell me you're not going to make it. I said, But, you don't know this, but Benny has cancer, Ronald has cancer and I have cancer also. I'm in a cancer treatment center right now. I'm getting chemo right this minute. I said, we're going to fight this thing. We've talked about it and we're going to get together and we're going to write a book and we're going to make a lot of money. So get out of that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDWARDS: And he laughed and he said, Pres, don't make me laugh. So I said, Well, look man, get out of the hospital.

And Ellis got out of the hospital. When Ellis came to New Orleans he looked good. He looked just my picture had been of him all along. Ellis lived four years after that. And we'd have conference calls. We'd get together. We'd clown. People said when we'd get together what'd you talk about? Well, we started first grade together.

Mr. PRIESTLEY: Yeah.

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, we'd kid and joke and laugh and clown. And Ellis was the biggest clown of all. So he kept the - Ellis and Benny really kept the process moving. And Benny said one day, I need to come to New Orleans and Ellis can come to New Orleans. You take off from work and we're going to sit down and talk into the tape recorder until we get this done.

MARTIN: But that still must've been hard, though, Mr. Priestly (unintelligible).

Mr. EDWARDS: It was really hard.

MARTIN: Well, all of…

Mr. EDWARDS: This is Preston.

MARTIN: Go ahead Preston.

Mr. EDWARDS: It was hard listening to Ellis' voice on the tape recorder. And, you know, that's the thing that, you know, here Ellis is gone and you hear all of the details of everything that he went through, all of the suffering that he went through. Now, that part was hard.

MARTIN: Yeah, had to have been. Mr. Priestly, I guess I'm hearing all of you say you all had this strong desire to reach out and, you know, help other people through this. But what's still funny to me is that individually you didn't want to reach out to anybody. And I'm just wondering if you can help me with that. What is that? Just…

Mr. PRIESTLEY: Well, that's…

MARTIN: Is it a man thing?

Mr. PRIESTLEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

That's a tough question to answer, but I think that had something to do with it, you know, we're strong. We never get weak. If we do get weak we won't tell anyone.

Mr. EDWARDS: I think that's the reason why we wrote the book, because men do not talk about it. Okay? But - in the beginning we didn't talk about it. But then we realized, hey, we can't all keep this secret. We have to come out and talk about it. We have to be an example.

We said some things in that book we wouldn't have never told another man. And when we were getting together somebody would say, well, did you cry. I said, no, I didn't cry. Somebody said, man, you're lying. You know you cried. And we'd break out laughing. But when you're sick it's like you're weak. And, you know, all men try to be macho. So they don't want to tell people they have cancer. They don't talk about stuff like that. They don't want people to feel sorry for them.

And what we're trying to do is saying, hey, nobody's going to feel sorry for you, but you've got to face this stuff heads up. We want to have a dialogue. We want people to talk about this. We say - one of the things we say is don't go into seclusion. And I realized when I - I was in chemo and I lost all of my hair that I had never seen another African American man with a bald head, unless it was an intentional thing.

MARTIN: Like Michael Jordan.

Mr. EDWARDS: But I had a bald head. Like - right. When I went out - I went to a ball or a dance or something and a lady said, aren't you trying to be cute with that bald head, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And the other lady who knew what was going on pulled her to the side and told her, and she felt real, real bad, you know, after that.

MARTIN: Yeah, but you were…

Mr. EDWARDS: But no, we go into seclusion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you were kind of cute.

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, that's what my wife said.

MARTIN: Yeah, we talked.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of (unintelligible) a big part of your message is that you want men to take care of themselves and to take that seriously. You each have suggestions for helping men to remember to get regular checkups and to get screened. And so then I'd like to ask each of you what do you - what's your best advice to other men. And, Mr. Bazile, maybe you want to start?

Mr. BAZILE: The best advice to men is to go see your doctor every year, preferably on your birthday. That way you won't forget. And take your significant other along with you. And to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and find out what your medical condition is…

MARTIN: Oh.

Mr. BAZILE: …at that point.

MARTIN: That's a great idea. So make an appointment on your birthday.

Mr. BAZILE: Right.

MARTIN: Mr. Priestly, you have an idea for us? Do you have any suggestions for us?

Mr. PRIESTLEY: Well, yes. I had mentioned earlier about taking care of yourself, but I think some of the elements of that is one, given my condition, don't smoke. The others: to eat correctly, exercise correctly and follow the directions of the doctors and stay involved with those that you are close to and share information with.

MARTIN: Mr. Edwards, what about you?

Mr. EDWARDS: Two final thoughts. One is go on your birthday every year. That's the recommendation in the book. And number two, to know your body. If you feel anything strange happening, if there's anything that's nagging and not going away, go to your doctor. The other thing that we have to say is you don't want to hear those words. You don't want to hear them. But if you hear those words you can walk in the shoes of four African Americans who had five different kinds of cancer.

MARTIN: Preston Edwards is the publisher of Black Collegian magazine. He joined us from New Orleans. Benjamin Priestley is a retired social worker and community activist. He joined us from Portland, Oregon. And Ronald Bazile, Sr. is a Vietnam veteran and is recently retired from the U.S. postal service. He joined us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Their book is You Have Cancer. And you can find out more about them and their book at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Gentlemen, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure and I'm so happy to have had the chance to speak with each of you.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. PRIESTLEY: Thank you.

Mr. BAZILE: Thank you.

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