A Male Perspective on Breast Cancer

Commentator Mark Anthony Neal describes how he came to see breast cancer as more than just a "woman's disease." Neal is an associate professor with the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University and author of The New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.

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ED GORDON, host:

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and organizations across the country are leading ad campaigns, walkathons and fund-raisers to bring attention to the disease. Commentator Mark Anthony Neal's concern over breast cancer came through a far more personal experience.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL:

A few years ago, I would have been oblivious to the large numbers of pink ribbons that I see on the wrists of children and women and stickers on the backs of minivans. Now I know that those ribbons are symbols of breast cancer awareness. And indeed, whatever awareness I now have of the disease had little to do with me actively seeking out information about something that afflicts nearly 200,000 women each year.

In my case, it was only while sitting down and reading June Jordan's "Some of Us Did Not Die" weeks after the legendary writer did succumb to breast cancer that I began to wrap my head around the disease's impact, specifically on black women. The openness in which Jordan talked about death and her desire to ward off the cancer that was killing her struck a powerful chord in me.

Though more white women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, black women are far more likely to die from the disease. Breast cancer, like fibroids and osteoporosis, is yet another example of a disease that is often referred to as simply a woman's disease. I suspect that many men begin to think dismissively about the health issues that disproportionately affect women when they are told as boys that it was mommy's time of the month. Nevertheless, black men must take greater responsibility in increasing their awareness of the diseases that afflict our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and friends. For example, some studies have shown that 80 percent of all black women suffer from some form of fibroid disease. Could you imagine a disease that afflicted 80 percent of black men that black women would be largely ignorant of? Of course not. But such ignorance is largely the product of a society that continually devalues issues that are critical to black women. Remember Dick Cheney and John Edwards flubbing questions about black women's health issues during last year's vice presidential debate?

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I was not aware that it was that severe an epidemic.

Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina; 2004 Vice Presidential Candidate): Forty-five million Americans without health-care coverage. We have children who don't have health-care coverage. The possibility of not only developing AIDS and having a problem, a life-threatening problem, but the problem of developing other life-threatening disease is there every day of their lives.

NEAL: Too often, though, black men are also party to efforts that devalue black women's health issues. As concerns about health care remain critical to black America, it is incumbent on black men to get serious about finding out more about the diseases that affect the women in our communities and in our lives.

GORDON: Mark Anthony Neal is an associate professor with the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University and the author of the "New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity."

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