Saturday, October 25, 2014

Disease Vector

You kind of don't know who or what to believe. Expert after so-called expert fans the flames, so much so that you're not sure just how worried you should be. And then just when you start to settle down and not worry, a new study comes out and you start to panic all over again. It's gotten so that any little twinge makes you pick up the phone to call the doctor, only to put it down as you realize that the reality is nowhere near what the media is hyping.

Ebola? No, not that. Three people have been infected out of a population of about 318 million. Do the math: that's 0.000094%. You have a better chance of getting killed by a bee sting. Or a rollercoaster. Or accidentally shooting yourself. You even have a better chance of getting killed because you partied too hard: every year 88,000 Americans die from alcohol abuse. But Ebola? Unless something changes big time, you can safely take off your hazmat suit before you go grocery shopping.

No, I'm referring to the study much more germane to me and my ilk. By my ilk I mean middle age men who are, how to put it politely, follically challenged. According to a study recently published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology, men with moderate baldness in the front and crown at age 45 had about a 40 percent increased risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer than men with no baldness at that age.  

What's important to note is that this is a correlation and not a cause and effect situation. In another words, it's a marker: you don't get prostate cancer because you are balding, but it may indicate you might get it. May. Might. Or put another way by Dr. Michael Cook, senior study author and an investigator in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, "While our data shows a strong possibility for a link between the development of baldness and aggressive prostate cancer, it's too soon to apply these findings to patient care." Translation: put down the phone.

While this important study got some modest exposure in the form of a quick hit in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, it certainly wasn't front page news. This in spite of the fact that prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind only lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates a man's lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer is 15.3%, while the risk of dying from it is 2.7%.

Those are significant numbers. Yet MSNBC and FOX haven't devoted wall to wall coverage of the disease, or of what seems to be a possibly important tool in the screening, detection and treatment of a significant health risk concerning half the population. Out of the 151 million males out there, myself included, about 233,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year. Still, perspective is important; it's all about vigilance and awareness, not hysteria.  

In other words men like myself should be more tuned in to the disease, and the symptoms and indications of its presence. Indeed, there have been several attempts at campaigns aimed at men the same way that breast cancer awareness has become a national focus, through things like the Susan Komen Race for the Cure and the NFL's Pink campaign. No doubt lives would be saved if more men paid more attention to their health, and simple warning signs like baldness were confirmed as useful tools to spot the disease.  

But contrast that with Ebola. When you compare the two, I am 1,637 times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than to have to be quarantined because of virus. And so we can debate the best way to stop this horrible disease in West Africa from turning into something broader, be it sending money and troops to the continent, or screening individuals at airports, or a total ban of flights. And to be sure there's room in that discussion that includes not just the medical point of view but the psychological one as well, given the horrific course it takes. But forgive me if I turn off CNN when I see them put graphics on the screen like "Is Ebola the ISIS of Biological Agents?"


Marc Wollin of Bedford is not afraid to fly just because the guy next to him is coughing. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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