Former player and now broadcaster Shannon Sharpe got a bit deeper than just football on Fox NFL Sunday. During the broadcast, he revealed that back in 2016, he privately experienced a prostate cancer diagnosis, sharing the news that currently, he is cancer-free.
In 2016, @ShannonSharpe privately battled prostate cancer.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 18, 2022
Today on FOX NFL Sunday, he shared his story:
It came about when pharmaceutical company Janssen approached Sharpe to be a spokesperson for its Talk That Talk campaign, happening throughout September, which is also Prostate Cancer Awareness month. The campaign focuses on encouraging Black men to get regular prostate cancer screenings.
As a member of the Black community, and someone who has lost a handful of loved ones to cancer, I can attest to the need and value of a campaign like this. Prostate cancer seems to wage a different war on Black men.
During the broadcast, Sharpe highlighted some statistics that are echoed across different medical journals, like the fact that Black men are nearly 2 times more likely to receive a prostate cancer diagnosis than white men and other men of colour. He also shared that Black men are 2.1 times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men. But with a much higher survival rate than several other types of cancer, the question is why so many Black men refuse to go public with their cancer diagnosis.
Take my partner’s dad, for example, who passed away in January of 2021. It was his third brush with cancer. The first time was in 1999 when he was informed he had prostate cancer. He underwent chemotherapy for the better part of a year, before turning his full attention back to his family and work. A few years later, just two years past the five-year mark, it came back. He turned to chemotherapy again, effectively clearing the cancer from his body. Finally, after more than a decade enjoying his life with the big C in his rear view, it came back for a third time in 2020 – this time in the form of a double diagnosis of cancer in his colon and prostate.
I know the idea of any cancer diagnosis being “timely” is just ridiculous. But it’s hard to deny that there are very inopportune times to have to focus all of your time, attention, and energy to healing your body. And this was one of them. He was working on building a second home back in the Caribbean and didn’t feel like he could step away from that to fight cancer for the third time. As a result, he kept his diagnosis from his wife and kids until his conditions were undeniable. He passed within months.
Timing is a huge component. According to Sharpe, part of the reason he withheld his diagnosis was because of work. He got the news just before starting what he calls his “dream job” on Undisputed.
"I had been wanting this job for so long and I had been given an opportunity that Skip believed in me,” he told PEOPLE. “I was going to be a co-host of a daily debate show that we talked about football, basketball, track and field, golf, tennis, social issues, I was the first athlete to do what I do full-time."
I think what he’s pointing to is the wider experience of Black people feeling like they only have one chance at something. Somehow in his mind, he felt like he might miss the opportunity of a lifetime if he displayed a weakness, a vulnerability, which is often what a diagnosis is misinterpreted to be. If there was less stigma around cancer, and more dialogue about it within Black homes, Black families and Black communities, Black people wouldn’t feel the need to shoulder the experience on our own.
In my day job as a community manager for a non-profit benefitting one of the top five cancer research centres in the world, seeing how different cultures navigate a cancer diagnosis is equal parts puzzling, insightful, and concerning.
I hate the fact that marginalized community members are more likely to be alone at every stage from the screening to the chemo and radiation sessions – even if it’s by choice. I hate having to pretend like even the strongest Black men don’t have an innate need for community.
Yet I find myself being of two minds when it comes to what Shannon Sharpe’s revelation will do to move the needle on Black men’s health. He’s a guy’s guy. He’s big and he’s beefy and he knows sports in and out – and I have no doubt that seeing someone like him reveal his diagnosis will give those who may, by chance, end up in a similar situation, a softer place to land. But what does it say when it takes six years to tell your story?
“I always wanted to share my story, I just didn’t know when or how to go about sharing it,” he said during the broadcast. This goes back to my point about the need for more dialogue. If we were more accustomed to talking about it, the starting point would be easier to find.
I think the message of taking his time going public sends is that no one is supposed to see us when we’re weak or when we’re vulnerable. But how can we give the full picture, capture the importance and urgency behind the message, if we have to wait with baited, unguaranteed breath, until we’re better in order to do so?
Personally, I think we need to hear from more men, and not just Black men, who are in the thick of it. And while I certainly don’t think it should be on cancer patients to have to record PSAs and get the message out while they’re on chemo, we do have to find a way to counter the images of strength and resilience, two characteristics that seem to be reserved exclusively for Black men and women, with the very real effects of cancer.
That is how you push the importance of early screenings and detection.