"Raising awareness and saving lives

It was the spring of 2002 and the Rev. Charles Williams, the president and driving force behind Indiana Black Expo for three decades, was preparing for the organization’s annual signature event, the Summer Celebration. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the state and across the nation attend each year.

But Williams was ill. He had prostate cancer, and he knew it, though few others did. And like other decisions stemming from some aspect of his personal life, he decided to use the disease — his affliction — to reach others.

When he publicly announced he had prostate cancer just days before the opening of the Summer Celebration in 2002, Williams started a campaign to raise awareness of a disease that kills tens of thousands of men in America each year.

“It became his obsession. He didn’t want people to do what he did — wait too late,” says Black Expo board member Vernon Williams, who co-authored a 2003 book with Williams, That Black Men Might Live: My Fight Against Prostate Cancer. After the shock of the initial diagnosis, “He was very upbeat about it. He was very matter-of-fact. He would say, ‘I’m going to die.’ But it wasn’t all doom and gloom,” Williams says.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, excluding skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. But it is one of the most survivable with early detection and treatment. All men are at risk of the disease, but the risk, which also increases with age, is higher depending on family history.

“He [the Rev. Williams] had the largest minority health fair in the nation at his fingertips, and he didn’t walk through it,” says Alpha Garrett, Expo’s communications director. After his cancer was diagnosed, “He wanted men to take advantage of the opportunity that was there.”

Reaching men, but particularly black men, became “an unyielding determination,” Williams says. That was because black men have about a 60 percent higher incidence rate of prostate cancer than white men and a two-fold higher mortality rate.

The Rev. Williams died on July 12, 2004, two years after he was first diagnosed and just at the opening of the Summer Celebration that year. And while the idea was put in motion before his death, the Rev. Charles Williams Prostate Cancer Mobile Unit didn’t start until 2005.

One in six men in America will get prostate cancer in their lifetimes.

There were 232,090 new cases of the disease reported in America in 2005 and some 30,000 prostate cancer deaths, according to American Cancer Society statistics. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in men.

The purpose of the mobile unit is to encourage African-Americans to respond to an urgent call for action regarding prostate cancer, Garrett says. The unit travels throughout the entire state and offers both testing procedures needed to detect prostate cancer: a medical testing station for prostate specific antigen (PSA) screenings and digital rectal exams. It is also capable of screenings for blood pressure, body mass index based on weight and height, diabetes, cholesterol, HIV, osteoporosis and colon cancer.

“We purchased it and turned it over to [the Marion County Health Department] to run it,” she says. “It is the second such unit in America and the only one in the state of Indiana.”

Garrett says prostate cancer is often detected in black men later than in white men, thus limiting treatment options. But that is probably because fewer black men get regular medical checkups. However, the mobile has increased awareness in both men and women of the dangers of prostate cancer. In its first complete year, the unit conducted more than 800 screenings.

Raising awareness “became his reason for living in the latter stages of his life,” Vernon Williams says of the Rev. Williams, and it is his legacy as well.