Born and raised in South Carolina, Dr. James Bernard Washington has worked in higher education for 15 years. In 2017, he completed his doctoral degree in Adult and Community College Education from North Carolina State University. He currently serves as Director of The Evening and Weekend College Program at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He also served in the United States Military. A lover of jazz, he shared that Earl Kluh, David Sanborn, and others helped him graduate from college while he studied in the late evenings, early mornings and weekends. Dr. Washington takes pride in the fact that he never did illicit drugs, considers himself reasonably fit, and enjoys working out in the gym. Bernard also enjoys sailing and participated in sailing competitions as another method to physical fitness.
In his late thirties, Dr. Washington was diagnosed with hypertension. He recalled witnessing his grandparents, grand-aunts and grand-uncles taking lots of medications in the mid to late 1970s and remembers seeing all of the bottles of medication on bedroom dressers in their households. His mother was a nurse and the family entrusted her in helping them to be medically compliant. After learning he had hypertension, he decided as a male he was going to take his medicine as instructed by his medical provider. He was discouraged by his male peers to take the meds because it would affect his sexual libido; causing him to not be as vital as he should be. However, despite the discouragement and remembering the vast amounts of medications his grand relatives depended on he became very proactive about seeing a medical practitioner. The attending nurses shared that he was one of a few African American males to see them on a regular basis.
Dr. Washington began having his prostate exams regularly and his prostate-spectrum antigen test (PSA) levels were closely monitored. Also, as a result of prostate exams, he learned that he had an enlarged prostate which contributed to frequent and weak streamed urinations. He especially had frequent urinations at bed time and would have to limit his liquid in-take when traveling. When planning long drives, he had to know where the rest areas were located in advance. When attending special events, he wore dark suits just in case there was an accident if he not made it to the restroom in time!
It was in October 2014 when Bernard learned that he had early stage prostate cancer. It was shared that there was a 10-20% chance that he would experience erectile dysfunction if he chose to have a prostatectomy (which was urged by the urologist). However, his urologist emphasized that he had youth on his side and that there were medications to address this issue. Dr. Washington elected to have surgery as opposed to radiation and or chemotherapy. He did not want to risk the possibly of the cancer progressing to the next stage to other parts of his body. Further, he recalled that two years prior to his prostate surgery, his mother had a cancerous lump in one of her breasts so she decided to have a mastectomy. His mom wanted to be 100% sure that the cancer would be removed from her body. So, he held the very same philosophy about his state of health at this moment in his own decision making about surgery.
He had robotic surgery at Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, NC which lasted two (2) hours. The doctor shared that everything went well and that the cancer was confined to his prostate. With respect to post-surgery pain, he tried very hard not to take pain medications, but took pain meds a few times (per Nurses’ encouragement). Within hours of surgery, he was instructed that he must get up and walk. Fortunately, his daughter was there at the hospital to support him.
The hospital stay was short in that he was admitted Tuesday morning and checked out of the hospital the following day with a recovery time of 3-4 weeks. If you have stage four prostate cancer which requires major surgery, the recovery time could be up to three (3) months. Dr. Washington wore a catheter for a week and experienced a lot of sensitivity. After the surgery, he had a follow-up visit a week later. The removal of the catheter was not painful or uncomfortable, which he found very surprising. He did experience the light and heavy dribbling effect after the surgery---this experience also signaled that his body was tired or stressed. The physical therapist explained that heavy dribbling was the result of body stress. Initially, after having to wear diapers, he advanced to using pads in a couple of weeks and was very fortunate that there were no infections.
Prior to surgery, his three immediate concerns were: his ability to have erections again, the success of the robotic surgery getting rid (completely) of the cancer, and further complications. He had lots of support from family and friends and received encouraging phone calls up until the time he was prepped for surgery. He remembered that he did not experience any immediate post-surgical pain or discomfort. The only major incidence of pain was when he got into the SUV while leaving the hospital. When he tried to step up into the vehicle and into the seat, there was a sudden jerk of the seat which caused his body to jerk and he “cried like a baby” from the pain.
In 2015, Dr. Washington called one of the men from a support group from Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, NC because he felt the support of other men would be helpful in his healing journey. In this conversation he learned that a man was able to experience a full erection 2.5 months after surgery. Dr. Washington was not able to participate in the support group which met every other Friday because of the doctoral program’s class schedule. He worked with a physical therapist about 4-5 weeks post-surgery. In the exercise sessions some discussions included sex, exercises that help to achieve erections and especially methods to not stress in the process. A couple weeks after surgery, he was able to control his bladder.
He thought that there was only ejaculation with an erection until the physical therapist shared that he can ejaculate without having an erection. He did use a drug to address any erectile dysfunction. However, he tried other options later since the pill did not work for him. The bottom line is that despite everything Dr. Washington thought to himself---Man, You’re Alive. He was simply overly concerned about his sexual vitality. He started thinking about women who have had one or both breasts removed and how that may have affected them. But, the fact is they were “ALIVE AND HAD SURVIVED”. He knew that he was blessed in that some men have stage four cancer (and their lives were in jeopardy) and his was barely stage one---he had other options than major surgery. Bernard was again, thankful to being proactive about his physical examinations.
Urologists really are more sensitive and work very hard to not sever the nerves during the surgery. However, if the cancer is in close proximity to those areas the urologist may not have no choice but sever the nerves. Dr. Washington was aware of this, but he was reminded again, “You Are Alive”. Dr. Washington recalls what many men and women told him: “It’s better to have the surgery….Man, You Are Alive”.
Learning more about your body and emotions is truly vital in this process. When you consider intimate relationships, he found that unconditional love, having someone who is your best friend and true partner is what’s most important. While Dr. Washington is single, his experiences have truly taught him some lessons in love and life. He shared that he is glad he had the prostatectomy. There are support groups for both men and their families to help along this process.
Dr. Washington shared these final thoughts:
● Be “proactive” about your health---go to the doctor and get regular checkups.
● Share with Your Spouse, Partner or Significant Other: If you have a spouse or significant other, take them with you to your appointment. Be open in sharing what’s going on with you, particularly with your doctor and your spouse or partner. Research and experience shows that men tend to live longer with a significant other in their lives that are concerned about their total well-being.
● Be sure to have regular prostate exams no matter how uncomfortable it may be; it can save your life.
● Focus on your overall health and well-being. Stay physically active, maintain a healthy weight, reduce your intake of alcohol or do not drink, if you smoke make every effort to quit and if you don’t smoke, don’t start.
● Consider your diet: Eat a well-balanced diet and the need for fiber, fruit and vegetables, etc.
● Become more familiar with your family history. Remember Black men (in their 50s) are two-three times more likely than White males to have prostate cancer. My son just recently inquired about his maternal and paternal family’s health history.
● Consider Your Environment: If you work in an environment around chemicals and/or other hazardous materials, be sure to have regular checkups. This includes individuals who live around chemical plants.
● Join a support group: You’ll find that more men of color do participate in these groups more so than you imagine. There will be several men there who will share the same concerns that you are experiencing. This allows you to be freer about yourself and your feelings as it relates to having prostate cancer.
● Seeking professional counseling if you and/or your family are having challenges---you must move from being emotionally unhealthy to being healthy. You and your family are better off when you are able to seek assistance. Professional counseling helps you get to “heart and soul of who you are”. It makes you a better spouse, father, and man. It requires strength to admit that you need help. Consider healthy practices as a new legacy for your children and your children’s children.
● Read more about our health, what may cause the cancer and do your research, read and learn all you can. Also, learn about erectile dysfunction and what works best for you in addressing this issue. There are options and you need to know what works best for you.
Dr. Washington was very excited to participate in this very candid and heartfelt interview. His fervent prayer is that it will help other men, their significant others and family members who are all involved in this life’s journey with a loved one with prostate cancer. James Brown, GBDF Board Chair and Edna Davis-Brown, GBDF President, want to thank Dr. Washington for this “no holds barred” interview, his candor and his quest to positively affect the lives of others.
Bernard expresses thanks to Dr. Ervin V. Griffin, Sr. President Emeritus at Halifax Community College in Weldon, North Carolina. Dr. Griffin, Sr. encouraged him to share his experience to encourage more men (especially men of color) to be more proactive with their health.