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Cancer in communities of color: The danger within, Part 4
Special to the AmNews
Originally posted 4/1/2004

“Everything was going very well and then suddenly I was hit with cancer,” said bladder cancer survivor Carl McDonald of his experience. “I felt that my time was not yet finished; I didn’t want to die,” the Jamaican-born photographer said in an interview at his home in Yonkers, New York.
An award-winning newspaper and magazine photographer, with images published in periodicals as diverse as Life, The New York Times, The Daily News and Jet, it was very likely his passion that led to his cancer. “People who work in my field with a lot of chemicals … are prone to bladder cancer,” he said. For Carl the first warning sign was frequent urination, not uncommon in middle-aged men, but when he began to notice blood in his urine he knew it was time to get himself to the doctor.
“The immediate reaction was death,” Carl said of learning that he had bladder cancer. “But in my mind I wasn’t ready to pack it in,” he added. For so many people who fear they may have cancer it is the belief that cancer is a death sentence that keeps them from the doctor. But the cancers that most people die from can either be prevented by changing behaviors like smoking or have very high cure rates if caught early. One way to catch cancer before it spreads is to have regular screenings and doctor visits. Another is to be aware of the warning signs, such as a lump in a breast or, in Carl’s case, blood in the urine.
It was less than a year from Carl’s diagnosis to his surgery, which removed his cancerous bladder. Carl was fortunate that a new procedure had just been introduced that allowed his surgeons to create a new bladder, which allowed him to retain a higher quality of life. But as is the case for so many cancer survivors, the surgery and chemotherapy were not the hardest part of the process.
“It was very depressing. I was also going through a divorce at the time,” Carl said of the emotional challenges he faced during his treatment and recovery. “I don’t even like to recall that time. I cried every day – Niagara Falls couldn’t compete.” It was during this difficult time of recovery that Carl became involved in the Patient-to-Patient program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a program designed to allow survivors to reach out in person and over the phone to the newly diagnosed and those still battling cancer and share their experiences and knowledge.
“It took me a while to be able to speak about the experience without breaking down,” he said. “But eventually I was strong enough and I was making calls to Ohio and Florida.” For Carl, reaching out to other patients was one of the tools that helped him in the months and years after his surgery.
“The point is that there is hope, there is definitely hope,” Carl said, looking back at his own fears, now in the distant past. “I think it is important to have your own support; if you feel you are doing it alone the task is much more tremendous,” he added. While many doctors and hospitals focus on curing a patient’s body, more and more have come to realize that emotional support is just as important to a patient for their recovery.
As a survivor and advocate, Carl not only reaches out to those with cancer but to those at risk.
“Early detection is key,” he said. “Black men tend not to see doctors because we don’t trust them,” Carl explained. But as a survivor he pointed to his own experience as an example of why it is so important to have and regularly visit a doctor. As Carl so clearly demonstrates every day of his life, you can have a full and healthy life after cancer, even when treatment requires surgery.

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