Poet and performer Benjamin Zephaniah tells Diane Parkes why he is determined to get men involved in a taboo subject.
THERE are some things that blokes just don’t do.
Standing in a pub talking about prostate cancer, for instance.
“I just can’t see it. Maybe a couple would have a whispered conversation about it outside, but it isn’t the kind of thing they would talk about together,” says Birmingham-born poet Benjamin Zephaniah.
“I think we have a long way to go in trying to get them off the subject of football and on to prostate cancer.”
But the nationally acclaimed writer and performer is prepared to give it a try.
As a spokesman for the national Prostate Cancer Charity, he is determined to talk about a condition which kills one man in the UK every hour.
“I have a feeling that we are moving forward with it. But it still isn’t enough,” Zephaniah says.
‘‘Most men don’t actually know what their prostate is and they certainly don’t know the symptoms if something is going wrong.
“The problem is that men don’t like the idea of being ill. I hear guys boasting about how they haven’t been to the doctor’s in two or three years because they think this makes them manly. And you just tell them to go to the doctor and get it sorted out.”
Benjamin, who grew up in Handsworth, first became involved with the national Prostate Cancer Charity a few years ago.
“It was a sad coincidence really,” he says. “I was getting to an age where I started to notice that people I knew were getting it.
‘‘And while this was happening, the charity approached me and asked me if I would write a comedy about prostate cancer.
‘‘That very concept was enough to make me want to do it – I couldn’t believe they could use comedy and prostate cancer in the same sentence.”
In the event the play, De Botty Business, was a huge success and the link was made.
The reason Benjamin’s involvement is so important is because Afro Caribbean men are three times more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men. And when the statistics show 35,000 men being diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK, that becomes a worry. But he says his message is being heard.
“People know that I don’t talk nonsense and if I am saying something then there is a reason for saying it. I am not going to waste their time and what I am saying is based on fact.”
And it has created a response – sometimes in an unexpected quarter.
“People do come up to me after shows and want to talk to me about it,” says Benjamin.
“There was a guy the other day who came up to me after a concert and told me his symptoms and asked me about it. I said, ‘Look, here is my phone number. Go and see the doctor and then call me later to let me know how it turns out.’
‘‘It was actually a urinary tract infection but at least he knew and his mind was at rest.”
But Zepheniah says more people need to speak out for the charity.
“When people know I am talking about prostate cancer they ask if I have had it, but I say you don’t need to have had it to talk about it.
“We need people from all walks of life – footballers, people who are in the public eye, who are respected – to come out and talk about it. It is only by talking about it that we can dispel the myths and encourage guys to go and get it checked at the first sign.”
One man who knows all too well the importance of Zephaniah’s message is Harcourt Shepherd. When he was told he had prostate cancer he had no idea what it was – but he knew it sounded bad.
The 64-year-old from Quinton had been referred to Birmingham’s General Hospital by his doctor after experiencing some of the symptoms of prostate cancer. Then, after a biopsy, he was given the news.
“I didn’t even know what it was,” he recalls 15 years later. “But when I heard the word cancer I started to think ‘this could be dangerous’.”
But he was fortunate. Because he had been to his doctor as soon as he experienced symptoms, the cancer had been detected relatively early which gave him a better chance of recovery.
Over the next few months, Harcourt underwent a series of radiotherapy sessions which he found to be painless.
Now living in West Bromwich, he insists: “Any man who has any of the symptoms should see their doctor as soon as possible. Because the quicker you see a doctor about it, the better you will be for it.”