antique spittoon on floorIf you use smokeless tobacco, or know a guy who does and want to help him, this is for you.  Obviously, the best thing you can do is quit.  But if you can’t do that, these three words may save your life:  Move your chaw!

I’ll explain, with help from Jason Campbell, D.D.S., a Prescott, Arizona, dental surgeon who specializes in complex reconstructions.  (Note: Campbell is also a very nice guy, and he says if you have any questions about what we’re talking about in this story, contact him at and he will answer them.)

When you stick a plug of tobacco in your mouth, it begins to break down, or denature, the tissue it touches.  It doesn’t just alter the tissue but the genetic code, as well, and this can lead to cancer.  By habit, says Campbell, “guys typically tend to keep the tobacco in the same spot all the time. “ The repeated chemical attack, of denaturant leaking out of a chaw of tobacco day after day, causes the body’s immune system to launch defensive countermeasures.   “The body’s way of protecting the tissue is, it toughens it up and thickens it, like when you get callouses on your hands from shoveling or lifting weights.  We see that wherever that tobacco goes.”  The official diagnosis of this phenomenon is called “tobacco pouch keratosis.”  (It’s gross.  Google it.)

Tobacco pouch keratosis is a precancerous condition.  “When the body starts laying excessive tissue down in order to protect itself, when those immune system cells get turned on, the body is automatically activating a system for cell formation.”  Cancer, Campbell points out, “is the continuous growth of tissue.  If the chemicals in tobacco alter the normal process, this system can get turned on and never turned off, and that’s when cancer can form.”  Usually, Campbell sees this keratosis on the lip and gum, but it’s kind of a tip-of-the-iceberg situation.  “Some of the fallout is, it creates inflammation in the area.  Periodontal bone loss is a process of inflammation, and that inflammation can cause a receding gum line, because it damages the bone, and then the gum follows the bone.  So periodontal defects are also very common in people who hold their tobacco in the same place over and over. “

If you smoke instead of chew, don’t feel too smug: The heat from a cigarette or cigar damages tissue, as well, and hampers the immune system in that area.  “So the heat is a problem, but the chemicals in smoked tobacco also inhibit the immune system,” says Campbell.  “Consider that the mouth is a pretty dirty environment.  A lot of different bacteria live there, and if the immune system is suppressed, it’s going to increase someone’s risk for bacteria-induced gum disease, as well as bacteria-caused tooth decay.”  (Another downside of smoking tobacco is that it messes up the taste buds; food doesn’t taste as good, and this suppresses the appetite – which is why you might see super-thin models and actresses puffing on cigarettes.  When people quit smoking, food starts to taste better.)

[Tweet “The damage to your lip and gum are reversible when you quit smokeless tobacco”]

Good news: the damage to the lip and gum is “100 percent reversible when tobacco products are discontinued.”  In the mouth, there is “a constant turnover rate of tissue replacement,” Campbell says.  “When the tissue detects that it doesn’t need to protect itself, that over-reactive thickening stops.  Usually that tissue can rebound.”  Periodontal damage, and damage from bone loss, can be corrected with surgery.

If you can’t quit chewing tobacco, there is still good news:  “I encourage our patients, if they are unwilling to quit, to move it.  My job as their dentist is to help them avoid big problems.  I’d much rather have them move it than increase their risk for cancer.”  For example:  If you generally keep your chaw tucked away on the right side of your mouth, put it on the left.

Campbell knows that for a lot of people, this means, “I just reduced my risk for cancer.  It’s okay for me to continue to chew!”  So, just because you can minimize your risk of cancer by moving your chaw, don’t think that’s one more reason why you shouldn’t quit.  “But one upside is, seeing that tissue heal does bring peace of mind for people.” It doesn’t happen right away, but “in six to eight months, we usually see that kind of leathery tissue start to dissipate.  In the tissue where there is receding of the gum, almost instantly we see the inflammation go down.  The gum is usually red and inflamed there, and that will heal very quickly.”

Keep in mind, Campbell notes, that tooth decay and gum disease are bigger oral health worries than the risks of cancer when it comes to smoking or chewing tobacco – and quitting reduces your risk for having to get cavities fixed, having your teeth go bad and needing crowns, or needing to have gum surgery.  “People need to understand that their risk of developing oral cancer is low.  But their chance of survival is very low.”  The mouth has a lot of blood flow – blood that can take cancer elsewhere, allowing it to metastasize.  People who get oral cancer from tobacco may need to have part of their face removed, or may risk having that cancer spread to other parts of the body.   I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Rinse Tests for Oral Cancer:  “We’re getting better at detecting oral cancer,” says Campbell.  Most dentists now check your mouth and throat very carefully for tissue changes, and at many practices, you can request a diagnostic test for oral cancer – a fluorescent rinse that bonds with precancerous cells, causing them to glow or stand out when the dentist shines a light on them.  These tests look for abnormal tissue, and aren’t just limited to changes caused by tobacco.  They can also detect other oral cancers, such as those caused by HPV.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

I lied in the headline.

strawberriesA prostate biopsy is not actually fun. But if you need one – if your PSA has gone up more than 0.4 ng/ml a year, or if your doctor has felt something suspicious, like a hard spot on the prostate during the rectal exam – then you need one, so here are a few things you should know.

The way doctors look for cancer in the prostate is much like looking with a needle in a haystack. The needle in this case is a spring-loaded biopsy gun, a tiny device that’s attached to an ultrasound machine. It’s not like a sewing needle; this one has a hollow center, so that it can capture at least 10 to 12 tiny cores of tissue, each one about a millimeter thick. Those cores go to a pathologist, who studies them under the microscope.

The Seeds in the Strawberry

What are they looking for? Johns Hopkins urologist Patrick Walsh, my co-author of Dr. Patrick Walsh‘s Guide to Surviving Prostate Cancer, uses this image with his patients: Imagine the prostate as a large strawberry.

Prostate cancer is multifocal. It causes what scientists call a field change. Multiple tumors pop up like dandelions, all at about the same time.

These seeds are tumors, and three to seven is the average number of separate cancers found in a radical prostatectomy (the operation to remove the entire prostate) specimen. How can a man develop several different spots of cancer? Prostate cancer is multifocal. It causes what scientists call a “field change” – basically, the entire prostate undergoes a transformation. Multiple tumors pop up like dandelions, all at about the same time. Each spot can be millimeters in size.

So this is what the urologist is looking for with the biopsy needle. But it’s not easy to hit a tiny seed inside a strawberry, especially one you can’t always see.

Why Cancer Can be Missed in African American Men

In another post, I mentioned the important work that another urologist, Ted Schaeffer, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of urology at Northwestern, is doing in understanding how prostate cancer is different in African American men. One reason it may be more aggressive when it’s diagnosed is that black men with prostate cancer make less PSA per gram of cancerous tissue, “So their PSA score could be misleading,” says Schaeffer. “There are fewer early warning signs.”

But even when an African American man does get a biopsy, his cancer can be missed. This is because his cancer, for some ornery reason, picks the hardest-to-get-to, easiest-to-miss-on-a-biopsy region of the prostate. “The way I explain it to patients,” says Schaeffer, “is, think about your prostate like a house.

“You have a basement. Just under that basement, the sub-basement, is the rectum, where we do the biopsies. You have a first floor, and an attic. Tumors in most Caucasians occur in the basement. If you’re taking tissue samples of the prostate from the sub-basement, you can get a good sampling of that area and are more likely to pick up a cancer. But if you’re African American, you have a high chance of having what we call an anterior tumor, in the attic of the house. It’s just harder, frankly, to be able to sample that area on a standard biopsy.”

This is why Schaeffer and colleagues get MRI images of their patients at highest risk, including African American men. “If we see something suspicious, we do an MRI-guided biopsy. We’re not the only place in the world doing this, but we’re doing it for reasons that were discovered at Hopkins.”

So, this is what I hope will be the take-home message:

If you are a black man, you need to be checked for prostate cancer starting at age 40. Get a baseline PSA test and have a rectal exam. If your PSA goes up more than 0.4 ng/ml a year – even if the number itself is low – you need a biopsy. Ideally, you need an MRI-guided biopsy. If no cancer is found, and that PSA keeps going up, you need another biopsy. If your doctor does not feel this way, find another one – a doctor who understands that prostate cancer is different in African American men in several important ways.

And Now, a Word About the Bacteria in Your Rear End

No offense, but you have bacteria in your bottom. We all do, so it’s nothing personal here. But it becomes an issue, so to speak, when you need a prostate biopsy. You’ve probably heard of nasty bugs known as multi-drug-resistant bacteria. When the biopsy needle goes into the prostate, it goes “transrectally” – through the rectum. To minimize the risk of infection, the standard protocol is for men to have an enema and to take antibiotics.

But this is not always enough. It turns out that one out of every five men has this multi-drug-resistant bacteria. If you have it, and you get an infection, “you can get very sick,” says Ted Schaeffer. The men most at risk? “Diabetics and health care providers. He made this observation in a study of a huge Medicare database of patients. His father, noted urologist Anthony J. Schaeffer, Urologist-in-Chief at Northwestern, is an expert on infection. Together, they came up with a protocol to lower the risk of a bad infection. “Before any biopsy, we sample the rectal flora” – the butt bacteria, if you will – with a simple swab test. “If we detect resistant bacteria, we then appropriately modify the antibiotic we give before the biopsy. That’s very important, because we’re preventing infectious complications that could be life-threatening.”

Before your biopsy, talk to your doctor about the risk of infection, and whether it would be possible to get a simple swab test ahead of time.

In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington


self portaitIf you are a man of African American descent – or a woman who loves him — I hope you read this. You are in the group that is hit the hardest by prostate cancer of all men in the world.

When you look at the men at highest risk of getting prostate cancer, one risk factor that stands out is having a family history of the disease – a father,brother, grandfather, or uncle, on either your mother’s or your father’s side of the family.

The other one is being black.

There are a bunch of reasons for this, including genetic differences in the androgen receptor, and lower levels of vitamin D, and diet, and socioeconomic differences in medical care, and some other things in the book I co-wrote with the great Johns Hopkins surgeon/scientist Patrick Walsh, called Dr. Patrick Walsh’s Guide to Surviving Prostate Cancer. But those things – while certainly important, and of potential help for researchers trying to treat or prevent the disease in the future — don’t even really matter to you right now.

[Tweet “When African American men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, it is likely to be a more aggressive form of cancer.”]

What you need to know is that when African American (AA) men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, it is likely to be a more aggressive form of cancer. You are more likely to need to go after that cancer – if I were your relative, I would tell you not even to think about watchful waiting, or active surveillance, or whatever a doctor might call getting a repeat biopsy 6 months to a year later, and continuing to watch that PSA. You can’t do that, because prostate cancer is most likely different in you, and you need to take it very seriously.

I recently interviewed Ted Schaeffer, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Johns Hopkins Brady Urological Institute’s Prostate Cancer Program, for a publication called Johns Hopkins Urology. (Note: Schaeffer is now chairman of urology at Northwestern.) A few years ago, Schaeffer made some important observations about the differences in cancer between men of African ancestry and other men. He followed up on them with research, he is the leader in this field, still actively researching this, and his findings are saving lives in the AA community.

“African American men often present with more aggressive cancers than other men,” says Schaeffer. For example, if you are an African American man who has been diagnosed with Gleason 6 (a stage of cancer that is often treated successfully and cured) disease, you have “a one-third higher chance of having more aggressive cancer than the biopsy suggests.” Also, “we found that when these men have surgery, they have a higher likelihood of needing additional adjuvant treatment.” These findings, published in the journal, Urology, were based on the outcomes of more than 17,000 men who underwent radical prostatectomy at Johns Hopkins; 1,650 of them were of African ancestry and were not only more likely to have a higher-grade cancer and larger tumors, but to experience recurrence of cancer compared to Caucasian men.

This is particularly worrisome in a time of confusing medical information, when many men and their doctors worry about overtreatment of prostate cancer, about side effects from surgery or radiation that didn’t need to happen, because maybe that disease would never have progressed, and a man could have lived his whole life without the cancer ever causing a problem. Yes, there are lucky men like this, and in a future post we’ll talk about what the criteria are for safely watching cancer, instead of taking it out or blasting the crap out of it with radiation. If you are a black man, you are most likely not one of these lucky men. I’m sorry, but you just aren’t, and I want you to know that so you can do something about it.

Schaeffer initially found that AA men who could be candidates for active surveillance turned out to have a much higher chance of having aggressive disease if they later needed surgery. He and colleagues later proved in the surveillance group that “the chance of failing surveillance or being reclassified
(determining that the cancer is a different stage or grade than initially thought) is 30 percent higher for black men compared to white men. We also found that even after surgery, if you control for the grade and stage of the cancer,men of African ancestry are more likely to have their cancers come back. It
means that biologically, they’re probably different.”

Cancer tends to develop in a harder-to-biopsy, easier-to-miss part of the prostate in black men than in other men. I’m going to write more about this in the next post, but the take-home message here is this:

If you are a black man, and you’re age 40 and you haven’t had your PSA checked and you haven’t had a rectal exam to check for prostate cancer, you need to do it.

You don’t want to get a rectal exam? Please. Don’t tell me, or any woman who’s had kids, where it’s like a train station in the hospital exam and everyone’s looking up inside you, that you don’t want to get that exam. It’s not that bad, and it can save your life.

If you are getting regular PSA exams and your PSA is going up consistently, more than 0.4 ng/ml a year (say you have one test and it’s a 1.4. The next year, it’s 1.9, then 2.5), you should get a biopsy. Don’t look at the overall number. PSA hasn’t been around that long, and at first, doctors thought that a PSA lower than 4.0 was okay; unfortunately, they missed a lot of cancers with just a basic cutoff number, because all men are different, and many factors, such as a man’s age and the size of his prostate, can affect that number. Ted Schaeffer would tell you that you should get an MRI-guided biopsy, because the MRI can pick up cancers that the biopsy misses.

If cancer is found, you need to treat it. Not with herbs, or dietary changes, or exercise, or supplements, or watchful waiting. Seek curative, aggressive treatment.

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In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington