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Prostate cancer survivor preaches value of testing

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Standing before a men’s support group, Patrick Baxter pulls no punches.

Since undergoing prostate cancer surgery in June, he tells them, he’s suffered the common side effect of incontinence. He has to wear a pad or diaper.

“I know why babies cry when they’re wet,” he says.

The men, who’ve all battled cancer, laugh nervously.

“You have to have a sense of humor,” he says. “Otherwise, you’re always fretting and worrying. All of those things lower your resistance.”

In the short time since diagnosis and surgery, the Boynton Beach man has developed a reputation as an ardent advocate for annual prostate cancer examinations. The key to this type of cancer, as with most, is early detection. So it’s a message he wants all men to hear.

But it’s especially crucial for black men, Baxter says. While one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, black men are 50 percent more likely to develop the disease and twice as likely to die from it.

“We don’t quite know for sure why, but the research shows there’s probably a couple of things that are causing this,” says Tom Kirk, president and CEO of Illinois-based Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education and Support Network. “There do seem to be some genetic things and then also it’s lifestyle. We know for a lot of African American men that there’s just plain Southern cooking. Southern cooking is part of the issue.

“The third factor is probably access to health care.”

Baxter attends support groups in Wellington and Boca Raton, and keeps a list of six men he telephones routinely.

“One guy is in California. I called him two days ago, just to reassure him. We talk about our experience,” he says.

Baxter is 5 feet 10, weighs 175 pounds and has the long, lean body of a runner. He’s completed 25 marathons and looks younger than his 46 years. He uses humor to connect with men after surgery. He talks about wearing his 12-year-old son’s briefs because they’re snug enough to keep the incontinence pad in place.

“The biggest problem is that most men are very macho,” says Jesse Seligman, a survivor and volunteer coordinator with Wellington Regional Medical Center’s prostate cancer support group. “They don’t want to go to the doctor because they’re afraid they’ll find out something’s wrong with them. It might reduce their manliness, or their libido might be restricted. And they don’t want to know about that.”

Baxter, originally from Jamaica, has spoken with men at churches in West Palm Beach and at his church, Boca Glades Baptist.

In September, he helped organize a free seminar in Wellington geared toward black men. Of the roughly 80 men in attendance, 33 took a free blood test. But only 27 agreed to the next step: a digital rectal exam.

The exam takes about 10 seconds. Ten seconds, he tells them, that could save them from prostate cancer.

“Fifteen percent of prostate cancer is not detectable by a blood test,” Baxter says. “If you feel the prostate, you may feel a nodule.”

Baxter doesn’t hound men to be tested. He just urges them to do it for their families.

“This is not about you. It’s about your family. It’s about your kids,” he says.

In his own case, Baxter just had a hunch.

“I call it divine intervention,” he says.

He’s always been diligent about regular check-ups. He eats well. He exercises and has seen in his professional life what can happen to those who neglect their physical well-being.

“I’m a physician’s assistant and I’m very much into health and wellness, doing the right thing for your body,” says Baxter, who works with a group of physicians in Delray Beach and part time in the emergency room at Wellington Regional.

Eight years ago, he started paying particular attention to his PSA level. PSA, which stands for prostate specific antigen level, is measured in blood tests and is a front-line indicator of prostate cancer. Though his level was within normal range for a man his age and he has no family history of the disease, Baxter noticed his PSA had risen in just a few years.

He consulted a urologist, who told him not to worry. But Baxter sensed something was wrong.

By early 2008, he went to another urologist, Dr. Edward Scheckowitz of Delray Beach, for a second opinion. He was diagnosed in April.

“God willing, he’s cured,” Scheckowitz says. “He put his family first. His decisions were really driven by his love and devotion to his family, rather than how surgery would affect him personally.”

Karen Baxter, his wife of 17 years, says his reaction to cancer is entirely within his character.

“I would say that he’s pretty much a positive guy, for the most part,” she says.

She recalled the Old Testament story that the couple heard in church the Sunday before receiving final confirmation of a cancer diagnosis.

“The message was about Jonah, who was running away from every assignment that God gave him,” she says. “Patrick associated the story with himself, and based on that message in church, it helped him to prepare himself.”

Only when Jonah is swallowed into the belly of a whale does he accept God’s assignment. Like Jonah, Baxter has an assignment, a mission to tell men to get tested.

“I don’t get frustrated,” he says of those who don’t heed his advice. “If I [were one to] get frustrated, I would have stopped this a long time ago. I’m a marathon runner. We don’t get frustrated. There’s so much pain involved in running, you just keep going.”

(The South Florida Sun Sentinel)