By Hazel Trice Edney
The benefits of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are well known by those who enroll in them, support them or otherwise associate with them.
Among the top five benefits, according to the United Negro College Fund, HBCUs meet the needs of low-income students; they serve first-generation Black students; they narrow the racial wealth gap; they address the nation’s unemployment and underemployment crisis and they foster success with their Black cultural climate.
But, in the opinion of Lawrence Davis, a master mechanic who was diagnosed with prostate cancer nine years ago, an HBCU actually provided for him a service that was equal to or even greater than any one of these benefits. Davis credits Hampton University for literally saving his life after the Veteran’s Administration declined to pay for his chosen cancer treatment – Proton Beam at Hampton University.
“I’ll tell anybody!” Davis declared during an interview. “Hampton University’s Proton Therapy Cancer Institute saved my life. It’s like the best kept secret in the world that we have right here in Virginia. And it is the largest stand-alone and most advanced one in the world – not just in Virginia, but in the world.”
But, that 2014 victory did not come without a fight. The fight was not as much against the cancer per se as it was with a least expected opposition. Despite the fact that Davis is an honorably discharged veteran of the U. S. Air Force, he recalls how the Veteran’s Administration (VA) refused to cover the cost of the proton beam therapy, thereby putting his life in jeopardy.
“We’ll cut it out, we’ll give you radiation, we’ll freeze it, but oh no – proton? – uh uh. We can’t give you that,” he recounted his perception of the response from the VA.
But, his mind was made up. Therefore, the fight was on.
He reached out to Bill Thomas, associate vice president for Governmental Relations of the Proton Therapy Institute and other Hampton University leadership. They, in turn, started going around back and forth with the Veteran’s Administration, he said.
“Bill Thomas has gone out and handed them everything that we can hand them. And they still turned it down,” said Davis.
They also reached out to members of the U. S. Congress; including Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine; Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Bobby Scott.
“And still the VA said, ‘No we’re not going to do that.’ They wouldn’t even look at it to be able to do it as a clinical trial,” Davis said.
Thomas recalls the frustration that was all too familiar.
During a meeting led by Scott, “I literally asked the VA, “Why are you letting this man die? Why are you not giving him what he needs to live? And they just looked at me and said, ‘It can’t be approved.’”
Turns out, Thomas said, “They were using the wrong set of guidelines … The qualifying agency that made the determination of whether or not you could use proton therapy was using 15-year-old data to turn people down.”
Due to medical confidentiality, the Veteran’s Administration could not specifically comment on Davis’ case. In a response to questions from the Trice Edney News Wire, VA spokesman David Hodge said the VA is currently researching the status of its proton beam therapy coverage and policies pertaining to it. He did not get back to this reporter with details by deadline as he waited for the information.
Meanwhile, the questions and criticism from Davis and Thomas appear even more relevant given the proximity of Hampton University to people who might need the therapy.
According to Thomas, the city of Portsmouth has the highest African-American cancer death rate in the entire state. That includes the city of Petersburg, which leads the nation with Black men dying from prostate cancer. Both Portsmouth and Petersburg are less than an hour from Hampton University.
Thomas describes how Black veterans – often with other illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease – have to travel lengthy distances to other hospitals in the state for treatments that they did not prefer.
“And less than 10 minutes away was Hampton University Proton Therapy. To me that’s an ungodly unbreakable sin. It almost makes me want to cry from time to time,” he said. “I’ve had veterans, for example, a Marine veteran from North Carolina who served in Vietnam; the man broke down and cried. And that’s why you hear me yelling and screaming about this.”
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a federal government agency, “For African-American men, the risk of dying from low-grade prostate cancer is double that of men of other races.”
ZEROCANCER.ORG reports, “One in six Black men will develop prostate cancer in his lifetime. Overall, Black men are 1.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with – and 2.1 times more likely to die from – prostate cancer than white men. Black men are also slightly more likely than white men to be diagnosed with advanced disease.”
In a nutshell, the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute (HUPTI) uses proton therapy, which is a “clinically proven advanced radiation technology,” according to its website.
On News.Hampton.U.edu, the procedure is described: “Protons safely and precisely target your cancer while effectively promoting less damage to healthy tissue, reduced side effects and improved quality of life during and after treatment.”
The website continues, “Through advocacy, education and state-of-the-art precision medicine, HUPTI has been treating breast, lung, prostate, head and neck, ocular, GI, brain and spine and pediatric cancers since” its inception in 2010.
Despite what appears to be puzzling resistance to proton therapy, even the NCI says the proton beam procedure appears to be just as safe and effective as other cancer radiation.
NCI reports that a study led two years ago by Brian Baumann, M.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania, gave no reason for the resistance. According to the NCI report:
“He and his colleagues analyzed data from nearly 1,500 adults with 11 different types of cancer. All participants had received simultaneous chemotherapy plus radiation at the University of Pennsylvania Health System between 2011 and 2016 and had been followed to track side effects and cancer outcomes, including survival. Almost 400 had received proton therapy and the rest received traditional radiation.”
“Those who received proton therapy experienced far fewer serious side effects than those who received traditional radiation, the researchers found. Within 90 days of starting treatment, 45 patients (12 percent) in the proton therapy group and 301 patients (28 percent) in the traditional radiation group experienced a severe side effect – that is, an effect severe enough to warrant hospitalization.
“Proton therapy didn’t affect people’s abilities to perform routine activities like housework as much as traditional radiation. Over the course of treatment, performance status scores were half as likely to decline for patients treated with proton therapy as for those who received traditional radiation.”
“Proton therapy appeared to work as well as traditional radiation therapy to treat cancer and preserve life. After 3 years, 46 percent of patients in the proton therapy group and 49 percent of those in the traditional radiation therapy group were cancer free. Fifty-six percent of people who received proton therapy and 58 percent of those who received traditional radiation were still alive after 3 years.”
With help from a benefit gala, held by the university, Davis was able to obtain the necessary funds for the therapy. Now, in addition to his regular day job, he now travels around the nation, educating especially Black men about prostate cancer and giving presentations on cancer and proton beam.
“Most men don’t even know what a prostate is,” said Davis, whose father died of prostate cancer. Davis is the father of a 54-year-old son and a 25-year-old grandson, who he also encourages about their health.
Medical experts agree that everyone’s medical condition is unique. Therefore, not all outcomes will be the same.
But, Davis said after the proton beam treatment, he had no sexual dysfunctions.
“It relieves stress and sorrow and somebody’s just playing these games with it,” he said, concluding, “Proton beam from the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, I believe it has saved my life. I really do. And it has been an enjoyable time for me to continue to live my life. The cancer is gone. And it happened at an HBCU … That boosted my pride.”