Calvin Martin, a member of the Community Advisory Board at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), went through his early adulthood feeling healthy, strong and rarely seeing the need to visit the doctor for routine exams. He believed it was a waste of time and money. Unfortunately, in 1995, at the age of 55, Calvin walked away with a positive prostate cancer diagnosis. Now cancer-free for 25 years and the founder of Brother-to-Brother, a Harlem-based prostate cancer support group, Calvin has devoted his time as a patient advocate and as a voice in his community to raise awareness about the importance of early prevention and screenings.

Calvin Martin, prostate cancer survivor and advocate (Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers)

Was there a moment or experience that changed your mindset about seeing a doctor and getting routine exams?
There were two events that happened in my life that forced me to take pause. I had a friend who had taken his wife for her physical exam. He waited in the car for her while she finished her appointment. His wife asked her doctor if he would examine her husband. Her husband was reluctant to submit to the exam but she convinced him. At that appointment, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He didn’t show any symptoms and he didn’t feel sick at all. A few weeks later, my brother-in-law was getting ready to start retirement. He went to the doctor for his physical. His blood pressure was extremely high, which he was unaware of. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure. In fact, his pressure was so high he was given medication on the spot. Those two events motivated me to start going to the doctor but not on a consistent basis.

My church, Convent Avenue Baptist Church, and the Prince Hall Masons of New York State (I am a member) had begun to incorporate prostate cancer screenings into their yearly program. That’s where I found out I had prostate cancer. I quickly went from someone who never saw the doctor on a consistent basis to one that goes twice a year.

When did you start sharing your story and becoming a voice in your community for prostate cancer awareness and prevention?
During the period when I was diagnosed and went through treatment no one knew I had prostate cancer except for my wife, mother, and daughter. My sister was devastated when she found out, but I didn’t want to share it. I thought it was personal, and there is stigma attached to prostate cancer for men. There are misconceptions that prostate cancer took away your manhood. People you know might treat you differently once they know that you have cancer. 

I started sharing my story in the late 1990s. It was actually my urologist at the time, Dr. Brian Stone, who encouraged me to speak out and share my experience. I went on a 7 a.m. local radio show to talk about my cancer journey. I didn’t think anyone would be listening, but then I started to receive calls from friends and colleagues. To my surprise, some were also going through prostate cancer silently. I found the experience of sharing my story therapeutic. I started to volunteer for the American Cancer Society and then I started Brother-to-Brother for my own local community.

What is the mission behind Brother-to-Brother and how does it help others?
The prostate cancer support groups I used to attend were located in downtown Manhattan, and I noticed that the men who attended were predominately Caucasian. The support groups were helpful but they didn’t meet the needs of the people in my community. I started Brother-to-Brother because I realized that many men and many African American men in Harlem who were going through prostate cancer suffered in silence. At our first few meetings we prayed people would show up. It started off slow but grew, basically by word of mouth although, we had a few urologists that had our flyers in their offices. We grew so big that we had to switch locations to a bigger space.  We talked about so many topics that spoke to our struggles—the barriers we faced with paying for our treatment and health insurance, and being able to find doctors who we felt comfortable with. We invited social workers to speak during the sessions and even doctors from Columbia.

How did you get involved with the HICCC’s Community Outreach and Engagement Office and what do you hope to achieve?
Columbia took notice of me and the work I’ve been doing in the community. I was involved in another community outreach program called InTouch; we train lay people to perform certain kinds of medical tests such as measuring patients’ blood pressure. We do this outreach in local churches. At one of our screenings, a member of the HICCC who heard about my involvement in the community approached me about joining the Community Advisory Board of HICCC’s Community Outreach and Engagement office.

In my community when you talk about outreach and cancer awareness the education component is lacking. The education component helps the community tremendously and is very much needed. And, when people look at me and see that I have survived prostate cancer and that I’m still remaining active, that really does encourage people to go for their screenings and follow through with treatment.

What is your advice to someone who is hesitant to get screened for prostate cancer?
That prostate cancer screening saved my life. A lot of men are reluctant to go through the examination, but it is a couple of seconds of discomfort that can literally save your life. There’s no comparison. Before I had prostate cancer, I thought there was a stigma attached to it. It turns out, I was naïve about that. People think of cancer as a death sentence, and it is not. That’s what motivates me to be an advocate and spread awareness. Others can see that I’ve survived, that I’m still very active, and I was able to overcome prostate cancer.

 

HICCC Featured Voices gives our patients, members, and supporters an opportunity to share their personal stories—living with cancer, surviving cancer, researching cancer, and aiming to end cancer. If you have a story to share and want to be included as a featured voice, please email the HICCC Communications team at cucancercomms@cumc.columbia.edu.