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Faith, Early Detection Saves Chip Murray

By Veronica Mackey

At 73, Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray looks like a picture of health.  Donning an African print vest and full white beard, the senior pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) in Los Angeles has the exuberance of men half his age.  It is one of the qualities that helped him survive his recent bout with prostate cancer.

“Faith is the healing medicine that takes away the fear.  When you combine medicine with faith, then you have a good chance of the fullness of healing,” Dr. Murray said.  “So, after the diagnosis in early September (2002) and the recommendation of a radical prostectomy, I simply went into my faith mode and said let’s go with it.”  He suffered from an enlarged prostate for more than 50 years.

Dr. Murray is among the ever-increasing group of black men affected by prostate cancer.  Nationally, African American men are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer than other men.  Scientists at the National Human Genome Center are studying genetics as a primary factor in explaining the higher risks.  “They (Human Genome Center) are now in the process of fixing the genes that cause all kinds of cancer and diabetes,” Dr. Murray said.

            Prostate cancer hits about 200,000 American men a year and is easily cured when diagnosed early, according to the American Cancer Society.  Once it spreads to the skeleton, it becomes fatal and kills more than 30,000 men a year.  Prostate problems can develop 5 to 10 years before they show up.  Because there may not be any symptoms for years, most men don’t realize there is a problem.  Frequent or bloody urination, for instance, are signs that may not be recognized until the cancer has developed. 

         Prostate cancer is diagnosed through a digital rectal exam (DRE) and by checking the prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels that measure cancer cells in the blood.  Normally, the higher your PSA level, the greater the chance that you have prostate cancer.  Anything over level 4 is considered elevated.  Men age 50 and over are advised to have PSA and DRE’s performed annually.  African American men should start screenings at age 40. 

            The connection between bones and prostate cancer cells was one of 80 scientific experiments conducted on board the Columbia space shuttle that crashed on February 1, 2003.  When cancer cells are grown in petri dishes on Earth, gravity flattens the cells, making them look like pancakes instead of tumors. In space, the lack of gravity allows the tumors to grow in three dimensions, more closely resembling the way they behave in the body. One sample, taken from a bone and prostate tumor, grew as large as a golf ball.

            Dr. Murray was diagnosed with a rare form of prostate cancer that only affects three percent of patients.  He underwent surgery at Kaiser Hospital just two days after the tests were confirmed from John Hopkins and UCLA.  “Two weeks later, I was ready to jump over fire hydrants,” he said jokingly. 

Describing her husband as a “very strong-willed person,” his wife Bernadine said he stayed at Kaiser for four days and went back to work full time after three and a half weeks later.

Prostate cancer survivor Ed Sanders, 58, was diagnosed with the disease 8 years ago.  Like Dr. Murray, Sanders (a preacher’s son) said he was never really afraid; he just knew he had to take care of business.  He was given three options:  radical surgery, radiation and watch and wait.  He chose radical surgery.  Waiting is sometimes advised if doctors believe the cancer can be destroyed by medication, Sanders said.

The life altering experience of prostate cancer led Sanders and his wife Pat to form 50 Hoops, a national basketball tournament that raises awareness of prostate cancer and provides access to free screenings. The National Physician & Family Referral (NPFR) Project is the community and media outreach division of 50 Hoops that is currently recruiting black prostate cancer survivors and their families for a genetic study.  It is the only study of its kind specifically targeted to African American men with a history of prostate cancer.

            Dr. Murray and Sanders believe that more black men could be saved if they’d see a doctor sooner.  Sanders asks men if they want to be macho, or if they want to be dead. Since his diagnosis in 1995, his brother, brother-in-law and barber have all been hit by the disease.

 I think it is a thing of male pride,” Dr. Murray said, “but we’re growing up.”

 With a 15,000 plus-member congregation, located squarely within L.A.’s black community, Murray is especially sensitive to the health issues of African Americans.  For the past 15 years, FAME has offered prostate and breast cancer screenings through partnerships with local hospitals and the Coalition of Health Professionals. “Now with cancer becoming epidemic we are increasing the frequency of the exams and really pushing the screenings particularly with the men.  We have the vans out there as soon as they come out of church,” he said.

            The fear of being told you have cancer hinders a lot of men from getting screened particularly if they may have some of the symptoms.  Second to fear, however, is the dreaded DRE.   If you have cancer, the doctor will have to put his hand up your rectum or you’re going to die. But it’s not really that bad.  Doctors are professionals and getting examined is a part of living,” Bernadine said.

           Women often play a significant role in getting their men to get check-ups.  Sanders credits Pat with saving his life by going with him to the doctor.  Bernadine regularly makes appointments for Dr. Murray, and has done so for the past 45 years.      

            Being pro-active, the man of faith said, is critical to survival.  Making changes in diet, exercising and getting medical care are extremely important.   “I encourage our men to make it a general principle to have an annual physical particularly after age forty.  Check your PSA level at least on a yearly basis so they can detect it early enough to get preventive care.

             “Our people are slowly realizing the fast foods are killing our systems. It’s bad enough that we are overweight and when you add to overweight, overstressed, and when you add overweight and overstressed to under-maintained medically—by way of hospitalization coverage and health exams—you’re looking for an accident to happen.”  

Dr. Murray is a new man today.  In fact, the surgery has healed other conditions as well.  A borderline diabetic, his blood sugar has improved, eliminating the need for medication.  The damaged nerve endings in his feet have subsided, Bernadine said.

“Stress causes as much sickness as any other disease that is probably known to us,” he said.  He owes his recovery to God, staying fit, eating well and choosing to be happy.

            For information on FAME’s health outreach programs, call (323) 730-9180 or go online at www.famechurch.org.  To learn more about the prostate cancer study, call (800) 677-8441 or visit the website at www.npfr.resourcez.com.