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May 17th, 2012
03:01 PM ET

Charlie Wilson's fight against prostate cancer

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week American R&B singer-songwriter-producer Charlie Wilson explains why he's talking a lot about prostate cancer.

“Mr. Wilson... you have prostate cancer.” Those words made up the most devastating phrase I had ever heard.

I have faced numerous challenges in my life and my journey hasn’t been an easy one. I walk that journey step-by-step and prayer-by-prayer. But prostate cancer was a new challenge.

I remember hearing I had prostate cancer like it was yesterday. I was convinced my life was over.  I worked hard at overcoming other life challenges and had the will to return to the top of my game in the music business. I put together a good show; had a catalog of great new songs to record and perform.

Everything was just going great until I went to the doctor for a general physical in the summer of 2008.

My wife, Mahin, made an appointment for me to have my annual physical. I have never liked going to the doctor or getting any type of exam. In addition to the physical, Mahin suggested I have a prostate exam.

I definitely did not want to have that - for various reasons - but Mahin was very convincing.

After a few days, I heard back from the doctor. He encouraged me to make an appointment for the following month for additional monitoring. He explained that African-American men were more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than any other race, and he wanted to keep an eye on things.

I returned in a month. Based on follow-up tests, my doctor suggested that I see a specialist for a biopsy. I immediately got nervous and was concerned about what this could possibly mean.

Our visit with the specialist started with, “I have some good news and some bad news.” My wife asked for the bad news and the doctor said “Mr. Wilson, you have prostate cancer.” My initial reaction was to get up and leave the room. My wife calmly asked me to sit down and have the doctor give us the good news. The good news was that it had been detected early and could be effectively treated.

Thank God for my wife and her patience and understanding. My initial thought was that my life and career were over. Nothing was further from the truth.

The doctor gave us some informational materials and our research began. We discussed options with my health care team and by working with them closely, I am now cancer free.

However, my journey was not over.

During our research I learned that African-American men are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with this disease than other races or ethnicities. It was at that time that I decided it was time for me to start informing as well as performing.

I began to talk about my prostrate cancer diagnosis in my concerts and interviews. Some men asked, “Why are you telling your personal business?” I replied, “It’s my responsibility to make my community aware of this disease and to try to overcome the fear about discussing it.”

During my own prostate cancer battle, I learned that my father was also conducting his own battle. Unfortunately, he did not tell us that he had prostate cancer. It wasn’t until I called to let him know about my diagnosis that he told me. That was a very difficult conversation for me and also confirmed my commitment to tell my story in order to make my community aware of this disease and encourage them to discuss it.

Teaming up with Janssen Biotech, Inc. on the Making Awareness a Priority (M.A.P.) initiative is giving me the opportunity to talk to my community about the toll prostate cancer can take and about taking control of your health care decisions. It’s a much larger platform that will help me reach as many men as possible.

We kicked off the program in Atlanta in April and additional M.A.P. events are planned in New York on May 19 and Chicago on July 28 – details and registration information can be found at www.myprostatecancerroadmap.com. Each event is open to the public and is an opportunity to start a dialogue about prostate cancer, its impact on African-American men and their families, and increasing awareness to start a conversation with their health care teams about this serious and deadly disease.

People say I am a prostate cancer survivor and that is true. But I am doing more than surviving. I am thriving. My career is at an all-time high. I’ve had two No. 1 albums, four Grammy nominations and I am touring and performing at some of the biggest music festivals in the country. I’ve performed for our troops in Kuwait and Iraq four times in the last three years and recently performed at a sold-out concert in London.

More important than anything, my priority is taking care of myself and taking charge of my health care decisions. I hope that African-American men and their families will register for one of the upcoming events, take a moment to learn more about prostate cancer and help spread the word. Awareness is the key. There are great resources and support for those who need it.

I am grateful to my wife for insisting that I have yearly checkups and that I include a discussion about my prostate with my doctor. I still don’t like going to the doctor, but now that I am aware of the importance of going and discussing my health care, I am doing what I can to help myself, with the continued support of my family.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.