Early detection of prostate cancer is essential, and insurers must cover screening costs

Men need to get tested for prostate cancer. A bill I sponsored would require insurers to cover prostate cancer screening without co-pays, deductibles and other cost-sharing. The bill has passed the Illinois House and Senate.

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File photo of State Rep. La Shawn Ford.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

I always thought of myself as a healthy and fit 48-year-old. I exercised and ate right. I got regular checkups. I tried to do things the right way — even if that meant going against conventional wisdom.

Mainstream science such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men should wait until they are 55 to discuss screening for prostate cancer with their doctor.

The task force also says there isn’t enough scientific evidence to make a separate, specific recommendation on prostate specific antigen-based screening for prostate cancer in Black men. That isn’t good enough.

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In early 2020, knowing the facts about the death rates of Black men from prostate cancer, I went to see my doctor, and during my routine visit, I decided to go against the task force and ask for a prostate screening. I did not feel sick. I had no symptoms. I just decided it would be a good idea to get tested.

Unbeknownst to me, this may have been one of the most important decisions I have ever made in my life.

It turns out, I did have prostate cancer, and while there is nothing fun about what I went through and am still going through to become cancer free, the alternative is simply unthinkable. The alternative for me would have been a long struggle to beat prostate cancer — a struggle I very likely would not have survived.

Prostate cancer is a silent killer because it can go undetected for many years, and by the time patients seek medical help, it very often is too late. I was told my cancer could have gone undetected for six years. That’s six years of growing and spreading and silently killing me without me knowing what was happening.

Statistically, one in every seven men will get prostate cancer. In the Black community, about one in four men will get a positive prostate cancer diagnosis, and they are 2.5 times more likely to die of prostate cancer.

The good news is that nearly 100% of men with an early diagnosis are still alive within five years of the diagnosis.

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Unfortunately, prostate cancer screenings are on the decline, and the pandemic has only served to make a bad situation even worse. Researchers estimate 10 million cancer screenings of all types were missed during the pandemic.

COVID-19 is a serious public health crisis, but focusing on COVID-19 should not come at the expense of ignoring other, very deadly diseases. Men need to get tested for prostate cancer. The most basic test for prostate cancer is a simple blood test and a physical exam. The test takes about 10 minutes. Spending 10 minutes to save your life seems like a no-brainer to me.

Of course, men tend to put off things like health screenings, and then there is the issue of insurance coverage.

I will continue to tell my story and encourage men to know their prostate health through early screenings for prostate cancer. We can’t make men get these tests, but we can certainly arm them with information to encourage them to take 10 minutes to potentially save their lives.

And we can do something to ensure cost is not a deterrent to these tests. I introduced a measure (HB 5318) to require insurers to cover prostate cancer screening without co-pays, deductibles and any other cost sharing. The bill has passed the Illinois House and Senate.

There is no question the decision I made to get a prostate cancer screening saved my life. Waiting until I had symptoms would have cost me my life.

There are no good reasons to avoid getting tested for prostate cancer, but if HB 5318 becomes law, cost will no longer be a deterrent for men to get tested. When it becomes law, we will make men’s health the priority it deserves to be.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford represents the 8th District in the Illinois House.

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